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By: The S4 Collective


“The value of education and school was instilled in me from an early age. As a result, I have a deep-rooted passion for learning and the acquisition of knowledge. These ideals accompanied me on my migration journey to Canada – a land of opportunity. I was not prepared for the hurdles that I encountered in the realization of that goal.”

S4 Collective member

In the fall of 2018, the Sanctuary Students Solidarity and Support Collective (S4 Collective) was formed in Toronto. The group emerged in response to several challenges identified by a group of students with precarious immigration status at the threshold of post-secondary education. The realization of this group was supported by practitioners who had been working with newcomer youth in varying capacity for several years. Although early in its evolution, the group has two main objectives: 1) to support students with precarious immigration status in navigating various levels of education in Ontario; and 2) to support the capacity building of programs and institutions to increase equitable access for these populations. Several members of this collective have contributed to the development of this article, reflecting our own experiences in identifying and overcoming challenges with accessing education in Ontario. We would like to caution readers that our individual experiences may not directly reflect those of other precarious migrant students (particularly students outside of Toronto); however, we hope that this can provide a general roadmap for those in similar situations. If you would like additional information or support, please contact us at s4collective@riseup.net. 

Overview of the Issue and Existing Responses 

In Ontario, every child under 18 has the right to attend school regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. This right, ensured by Section 49.1 of the Ontario Education Act (OEA), however, is not extended to everyone. Most Canadians don’t worry about being turned away when they walk in to register for school. Non-status youth, on the other hand, continually face barriers and exclusion when trying to get an education in Ontario. Children as young as 4 or 5 have been sent away from schools, with the inaccurate and harmful message that they are not eligible to join their peers. 

Over the past two decades, targeted and community-driven advocacy campaigns led by Social Planning Toronto, No One Is Illegal, non-status youth and allies have significantly increased access to schooling in Ontario. These efforts have resulted in the greater implementation of section 49.1; the development of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at the Toronto District School Board. This policy assures that student’s immigration status will not be shared with immigration authorities, and the creation of a ground-breaking new program at York University, which allows non-status (as well as students with precarious immigration status) to pursue undergraduate degrees at domestic fee rates. 

Despite this progress, barriers remain for non-status youth trying to exercise their right to education in Ontario. For instance, policies and directives are often misread or misinterpreted by administrators within primary, secondary and post-secondary institutions. These administrators, who stand between the students and the classroom for registration purposes, continue to turn youth away. Other youth and their families may be unaware of their right to education and/or unable to advocate for this right as they may be isolated or disconnected from community resources that could help them. These experiences of social exclusion are unfolding within the context of the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric in the global north, which further increases the likelihood of youth experiencing the harmful impacts of xenophobia and racism while striving for meaningful access to education. 

The Regulations and How they Work 

At the primary and secondary level, children and their parents face specific challenges enrolling in school if they do not have immigration documents to prove their status in Canada, which, in fact, directly contradicts section 49.1 of the OEA. They will also be turned away if they have been in the country for less than six months, indicating that they are still visitors/tourists. This temporary status is, therefore, a barrier for families that intend to stay and eventually submit an immigration application. Moreover, the absence of a proof of address, which many undocumented families do not have for a variety of reasons, may cause significant challenges for school registration. Finally, minors that travel to Canada alone to escape violence or persecution may also face challenges if they don’t have a guardian in Canada. Conversely, those who are over 18 years old are not covered under the OEA and may also be excluded. For those who do manage to get past the initial threshold of registration and thereafter attend classes, other experiences of discrimination often await them, barring them from having an equitable school experience comparable to that of their Canadian-born counterparts. 

Focusing on the progress that has been made over the years, we will outline some of the advocacy strategies that have enabled non-status youth to gain access to education. As mentioned above, it is important to caution readers that many pitfalls continue to exist, and not all strategies will work for everyone. Notably, there is a sweeping lack of consistency around how policies are understood and implemented by different gatekeepers in different settings. Much of the information we will provide is Toronto-centric, reflecting the larger concentration of non-status youth in this city. It is our experience that non-status youth outside of Toronto often feel more invisibilized, and are in turn more excluded or misunderstood as a result. If you know a young person who is trying to access some form of education with precarious immigration status, we would therefore strongly encourage them to seek community support (resources will be listed at the end of this article). 

High School 

Detailed information around the experiences of non-status youth at the high school level across Ontario can be found in the Uprooted Education Report. Although this report reflects experiences from 2015/2016, sadly little progress has been made since then. Youth reported continually having to disclose their status at multiple points, depending on the area, (at the school board, at an assessment center, at the school itself), which lead to significant anxiety about their status being disclosed to others, including immigration authorities. However, if they are able to get through these psychological and bureaucratic barriers, they have the right to study in Ontario – well, to a point. 

Section 49.1 of the Ontario Education Act states: “A person who is otherwise entitled to be admitted to a school and who is less than eighteen years of age shall not be refused admission because the person or the person’s parent or guardian is unlawfully in Canada. (1993, c. 11, s. 21).” This should mean that anyone is entitled to free primary and secondary education in Ontario IF they are under the age of 18, and IF they aren’t entitled to a study permit (excluding international students and visitors). However, within some school boards, youth who have been in Canada less than six months may be eligible to register for school so long as ONE of their parents has been present in Canada for more than six months or holds a valid work permit. However, this important information needs to be known and understood by school administrators and other key actors for it to be implemented effectively. 

In Toronto, non-status youth who meet the eligibility outlined in Section 49.1 have two options: the public school board (TDSB) or the Catholic school board (TCDSB). The registration processes differ quite significantly between the two. For the TDSB, youth first have to go to the school board offices at 5050 Yonge Street to request a letter of eligibility to move forward with their registration process. 5050 Yonge Street can be an intimidating place, as the austere building has an authoritarian feel, and families are asked about their status in a hallway of strangers. Youth must prove that they have been in the country for more than 6 months, reside in Toronto, and in some cases even prove parentage (as administrators have, at times, challenged family members with different last names). Once they have cleared these challenges and received the eligibility letter, the youth must go to a Newcomer Reception Centre to determine their competence with a math and English test. Here, they again need to disclose their status and resubmit some of the proof (but with arguably more sensitivity). Finally, these young people are given their assessment package and instructed to go to the school closest to their residence, fill out more paperwork, and finally start class. This process could take anywhere from a day or two, to a few weeks or even months. 

At the TCDSB, families need to show the same documentation (proof of being in the country more than six months, residence in the city of Toronto, parentage) but have a more “one-stop-shopping” experience. Youth can make an appointment with the TCDSB Orientation Centre, where they disclose their status, fill out some paperwork and take the assessment test all at once. They can sometimes even start school the next day. Another important difference lies at the primary level, where families can register their students directly at a school, as long as they can prove they’ve been in the country for more than six months, and the child has been baptized. 

As mentioned earlier, these issues are frequently less understood, with even less defined procedures outside of Toronto. The lack of visibility of non-status residents and subsequent lack of understanding of their situation in smaller municipalities may lead to greater confusion – and with harmful consequences. According to the Uprooted Education Report, there is no consistency between school boards, and even between schools across Ontario around registration procedures for precarious status students. The report mentions several factors that may influence the experience, including the personality and mood of the administrator that students first encounter, having an advocate with them, awareness of how the systems work and their rights within these systems. 

When advocating for access to schooling for non-status youth outside Toronto, some have tried referring school administrators to section 49.1 of the OEA, though certain administrators dismiss these efforts. For the safety and security of non-status families, people may prefer to seek appropriate assistance while navigating these systems. Advocates can begin by inquiring anonymously for families at particular schools/school boards to assess the barriers that exist. If this doesn’t work, advocates may attempt to strategically argue for access, leveraging existing legislation– including OEA and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. If responses remain negative, next steps may include advocating with sympathetic school board trustees or MPPs. This can also develop into larger advocacy efforts to change local policies and practices. 

Graduation and Moving Forward 

At the end of grade 12, despite the significant accomplishment and all the excitement around graduation, members of our group faced some really difficult decisions and insurmountable barriers. Applying to college and/or university often led to disappointment when members realized that they would be asked for a study permit and obliged to pay international fees. Without a SIN, many then faced the reality of having to take on precarious, often low-paid and exploitative work. There are currently no provincial provisions to facilitate access for non-status students at the post-secondary level. However, advocacy efforts and community-university collaboration at York University has led to a ground-breaking program which facilitates admission for non-status and precarious status students. This program has enabled many of our members to start undergraduate degrees and follow their passions. While the initiative at York University reduces many of the significant barriers faced by non-status students, additional obstacles often present themselves. Being ineligible for OSAP, as well as most scholarships and bursaries means that tuition fees must be entirely covered by the student, which is a big financial undertaking. Nonetheless, as the obstacles are increasingly being identified and efforts are made to address them, the opportunity for other post-secondary institutions to increase access is significant. While many of our members are excited to be studying at York, some have identified other universities or colleges as their first choice, which drives our efforts to continue to work for expanded access. 

Final Thoughts 

Access to equitable education is widely understood to represent an important social determinant of health. For people residing in Canada with precarious immigration status, navigating the school system continues to be a complex and fraught process. Far from a homogenous process, one’s experience can be shaped by the region they live in: access to advocacy support and community resources, the biases of administrators and other gatekeepers at a particular school, age, length of time in Canada, and other social markers of identity likely to contribute to ease of access. The Bridging Program at York University – established in 2017, currently represents the only avenue by which precarious status students can feasibly access undergraduate studies in Canada. The S4 Collective has therefore emerged as a community-based group of precarious status students and allies to offer support to individuals, families, and communities striving to meet their educational goals, and to advocate for policy shifts in support of equitable access regardless of immigration status.

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