an insidious threat to the yukons children

There is an insidious global threat to the Yukon’s children. Like al-Qaida, it is a diffuse movement with no central leadership. Like swine flu, it is global in scope.

There is an insidious global threat to the Yukon’s children. Like al-Qaida, it is a diffuse movement with no central leadership. Like swine flu, it is global in scope. It is so worrying that the Yukon’s Department of Education has taken decisive steps to stamp it out of our public schools.

What is it?

International students.

Consider one example of this menace, a Spanish 15-year-old we’ll call Dulcinea (name changed to protect her from vengeful officials). She would like to spend a semester at a Whitehorse high school to improve her English, get to know her Canadian relatives better and broaden her mind. The federal government says she can enter the country for up to six months, or even longer if she gets a visa. But the Yukon Department of Education said no.

Education officials have gone to the effort of developing a special policy on people like Dulcinea. They even built a special “no” page on their website directing them to Manitoba, BC or Alberta.

The “no” page has some classic Department of Education double talk. It doesn’t use the word “ban,” instead saying that the Yukon “does not offer an international student program.” This is like when your six-year-old asks for candy, and instead of saying “no” you say “I’d like to give you some candy, sweetheart, but our family doesn’t offer a candy program.”

In any case, the web page makes it clear it is a comprehensive ban: “No Letters of Acceptance will be issued to foreign citizens for the purposes of obtaining a Student Visa through the

Citizenship and Immigration Canada offices or at a Canadian Embassy in the student’s home country.”

It sounds even stranger if you think about the economics of this policy. What if you read this headline? “Department of Economic Development bans non-Canadian ecotourists because they use public land, rivers and visitor centres without paying any fees to contribute to Renewable Resources’ budget.”

People would say that’s absurd. Ecotourists spend thousands of dollars each in the Yukon. In fact, far from banning them, our government spends a lot of money trying to lure them here.

So now the Department of Education has cracked down on “edutourists.” Similar to ecotourists, edutourists want to come to the Yukon and spend money on an activity with minimal environmental consequences.

One weird part of this is that Yukon College has been trying for years to attract more foreign students. So now the public schools branch is taking the exact opposite approach. This is the kind of “left hand doing one thing and right hand another” example that gives government a bad name.

So what are the potential objections to international students?

First, they increase a school’s population, and therefore consume some fraction of the public education budget. Of course, adding a couple of foreign students to a 500-person high school won’t make a noticeable difference. The extra $5 that FH Collins spent on photocopies for our New Zealand exchange student in 1985 was more than made up for in budgetary terms by the tax on his Yukon bar tab during our reunion last summer.

Even if we got swamped with dozens of international students, you could just charge them a few thousand bucks. This is what schools in BC do, from New Westminster to West Vancouver.

And here’s a shocking idea: instead of the Department deciding everything centrally, they could let principals and parent councils decide if their school was being overwhelmed with Spanish teenagers or not. Maybe principals and parent councils could decide how the fees could be spent at the school on tutoring for at-risk students, anti-bullying programs or similar things that principals are always scrambling to find money for.

Another objection is that there are entrepreneurs, some a bit shady, profiting from international student experiences. According to one unconfirmed story I heard, someone was charging thousands of dollars to a family in Kiev to send their child to the Yukon, then giving hundreds of dollars to a family here to “host” the student. The school got nothing.

Obviously, if you take international students it would be necessary to make sure the organizers and families were complying with the law. But a blanket fatwa on international students because of a few dodgy cases goes too far. The government should not treat Dulcinea’s Yukon relatives like fly-by-night Ukrainian exchange organizers.

Again, a parallel with ecotourism. The government spends millions on tourism promotion, and a small number of ecotourist entrepreneurs make profits from organizing the trips. Why should it be any different for an entrepreneur to organize student exchanges for a profit, as long as the law is respected? You could even charge for-profit outfits a higher fee.

Then there are worries about liability, public health, and so on. But if the school districts across Canada that actively recruit international students can figure this out, we probably can too.

Another thing to remember is that international students benefit Yukon students. Our Swedish and New Zealand international students in my high school class definitely broadened our horizons. And you never know when a student will decide to stay for life, helping build our community.

The ban on international students clearly seems like a case of officialdom throwing the baby out with the bath water. Sounds like a good opportunity for our newly elected cabinet ministers to ask a few common-sense questions of their officials. Maybe even in time for Dulcinea to enrol for the second semester.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.