PEI

As homestays under scrutiny nationwide, students on P.E.I. say they are treated 'like family'

Homestays are big business across Canada with students as young as six needing a home while studying. Now host family companies and immigrant services are calling for national standards.

'We know the people and it's closely monitored. I'm not sure we need more regulation'

International student Riu Shimizu says her homestay hosts treat her like family. (Karen Mair )

Faye Williams, her partner, musician Richard Wood, and UPEI international student Kosay Jaere sit around the kitchen table telling stories, sipping tea and laughing. It feels like a typical, welcoming Island kitchen. 

Williams has been a homestay host to international students for several years. She currently has three living in her home: Jaere, who's from Lebanon but grew up in the Caribbean, a Japanese student who arrived in the summer, and a student from Saudi Arabia, who grew up in Sudan.

When Williams heard UPEI was in need of homestay hosts, she took the opportunity. The students each pay Williams $800 a month, which includes all food, utilities and transportation, if needed, to the university.   

"It was a fit, as I homeschool my son and actually his curriculum includes culture and studying other countries," she said.

The homestay industry is huge in Canada with hundreds of thousands of international students from around the world attending public K-12 schools, colleges and universities. Recently, CBC Investigates reported that settlement agencies, student recruiters and host family companies are calling for regulations. 

Faye Williams is a homestay host to three international students, including Kosay Jaere. (Karen Mair )

In P.E.I., three companies are in the homestay business — Chinada Newcomer Cozy Home Company, Canada Homestay Network and Study Abroad Canada. If it's a homestay for a public school student, they'll use one of these companies and also appoint a guardian or custodian to oversee the child. The custodian also serves as a connection for the parents back home.  

Screening for homestays

The university handles its own homestay program. Cathy Gillan, director of the English Language Centre at UPEI, said the university has about 80 approved hosts, with more in the summer. A one-time homestay placement fee of $300 is charged. She thinks the system works well as it is.

"We have a detailed handout for parents and hosts. We know the people and it's closely monitored. I'm not sure we need more regulation," Gillan said.

Screening for homestay hosts on P.E.I. include:

  • extensive application form.
  • home visits.
  • necessary requirements, for instance every bedroom needs a desk.
  • a criminal background check.
  • a couple of interviews at UPEI.

"Occasionally there will be a miscommunication on a cultural or language level," Gillan said. "Saying 'please help yourself' could be awkward as some cultures will not know what to do or will take too much. It's usually funny and not something that needs more rules." 

Mealtime can make for interesting cultural exchanges in homestay homes. (Chris Read/CBC)

The groups calling for stricter regulations are national but largely based in Toronto. They say some businesses and custodians charge more and do less. The CBC Investigates story revealed one case of Tina Lui who moved to Toronto from China when she was 16. Her parents paid $16,000 for a so-called "super-custodian" package to guarantee her custodian would take extra care. That didn't happen, the custodian charged her $300 for two trips to the hospital. 

On the weekend we bake cupcakes and cookies. I feel happy with them they treat me like my original family.— Rui Shimizu

"I agree that rules, regulations and quality standards are important for any industry that provides services to minors and vulnerable people," said Jennifer Wilson, managing director of Canada Homestay Network. It operates homestays in Charlottetown, North Wiltshire, Cornwall and Hampshire.

"The good news is there's work being done in Canada to establish guidelines and best practices for homestay."

One organization she says is leading the way is the Canadian Association of Public Schools – International (CAPS-I). The organization has a standards of practice used by all member schools and helped B.C. become the first province to establish homestay guidelines for K-12. P.E.I.'s Department of Education is a member.   

Positive experience

Rui Shimizu, a Japansese student who has been at UPEI for six months studying economics, said her homestay has been nothing but positive. She stays with a woman and seven-year-old boy she refers to as her mother and little brother.

"On the weekend we bake cupcakes and cookies. I feel happy with them they treat me like my original family," she said.

Williams said the experience is also good for the hosts.

"We get so much out of it," she said. "We make new friends and they're people who become part of our family. We learn about other countries that we may not get to visit ourselves. Last Christmas was our most memorable. There was the traditional dinner, dishes for vegetarians, and a dish from each country represented plus students who lived with us before joined us."  

About the Author

Karen Mair is an award-winning journalist and an 'Islander by choice.' Since 1986 she's worked as a host, producer, reporter and social media presenter. These days, you'll find Karen reporting for digital and radio.