Thunder Bay

International student safety top of mind after weekend house fire in Thunder Bay, Ont.

A weekend house fire involving several international students in Thunder Bay, Ont. has sparked concerns about student and renter safety, and bylaw enforcement in the city.

More coordination needed to educate students and landlords about bylaws

Vignesh Viswanathan is the president of the student union at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Student Union of Confederation College Inc.)

A weekend house fire involving several international students in Thunder Bay, Ont. has sparked concerns about student and renter safety, and bylaw enforcement in the city.

Student representatives and staff at Lakehead University and the Confederation College want to enhance coordination and education to support international students coming to study in the region.

Vignesh Viswanathan, president of the Student Union of Confederation College, said that while a lot of information about accommodation is available to international students coming to Thunder Bay, more can be done.

"Is it enough? There is a lot of education that has to be done with the students, and we have to work along with the college and city to make sure that we are prepared for the international student population that is coming in."

The fire occurred at a house on Hartland Street early Saturday morning, and sent one international student attending Lakehead University to hospital. The student was originally in stable but critical condition. Several other students attending Confederation College were also injured in the incident. 

The origin, cause and circumstance of the fire are still under investigation.

Investigators said that the building was occupied by six to 10 international students at the time, and the residence was not known to be a properly approved or configured rooming house.

Plenty of support for affected students

Miriam Wall, Dean of International Education at the college, said since Saturday, several faculty and staff members have offered to help the students as they deal with the aftermath of the fire.

"We've provided the students with a variety of supports - and that ranges from providing some help to offset some of the losses of their personal assets. Some of the faculty and staff are involved in helping to replace some of the furniture that they lost. Counselling is also available for involved students."

Wall added that since many international students don't have any family support here, the college staff does the best it can to ensure that students are safe and comfortable in the city.

The student union and staff from Lakehead University have also been in contact with the student who was sent to the hospital as a result of the fire, and confirmed that they are working to provide additional support where possible.

A weekend house fire in Thunder Bay, Ont. has sparked conversations about student and renter safety in the region. The fire took place early Saturday morning, injuring several international students, including one that was sent to hospital in stable but critical condition. According to fire officials, the residence was occupied at the time by six to 10 international students. The building was not known to be a properly approved or configured rooming house. We hear from James Aldridge, the Vice-Provost International at Lakehead University, and Doug Vincent, Thunder Bay's manager of licensing and enforcement. 4:56

Moving forward, more dialogue needed

While it is common practice for both the college and university to provide information packages and sessions about on- and off-campus housing before and after students arrive to the city, it is ultimately the student's choice to decide where they stay.

According to James Aldridge, Vice-Provost International at Lakehead University, this can lead to one of two problems.

"You've got situations where international students come sometimes from countries or environments where the rules are different in terms of how many students would stay in an apartment or in a housing complex."

"So, sometimes students are assuming that things are the same here, and we try to make them aware of the differences. But, sometimes students will try to cram a few too many into one place to save money. But, also the students are sometimes being taken advantage of by landlords here."

Aldridge added that it is important moving forward that key stakeholders - including the college, the city, student representatives and others - come together to talk about how to better handle this situation.

"I'm hopeful that through some good dialogue with the various stakeholders, that we can figure out the best way to ensure that we don't have a) overcrowding situations; or b) that we don't have situations where students' rights are being trod on."

Farhan Yousaf, the vice-president of finance and operations of the Lakehead University Student Union, adds that the students and the city have a bigger role to play in keeping international student renters safe.

"I think there needs to be stronger bylaws. But on the other end, I think international students need to be told that there are certain rules and regulations, and occupancy in the house has to meet the limits. There has to be more education on both parts, and I think the city needs to play a part in that."

Yousaf also said that the student union is willing to work with the city to improve education of renters and landlords.

"LUSU is more than happy to work with the city, and I've heard that the city is willing to work together with the student union and the university. At the end of the day, we are all in this together and we want to make sure that the students who are coming here are safe."

City has a bylaw in place, but knowing about breaches can be a challenge

Thunder Bay's manager of licensing and enforcement, Doug Vincent, said the city already has a bylaw involving lodging houses that outlines provisions for landlords wishing to rent out four or more rooms, or to four or more individuals.

The bylaw triggers several safety mechanisms in the city, including inspections by the fire department and multiple city departments to ensure that the location meets provincial safety and building code standards.

However, Vincent said there are likely many landlords that have not had their buildings inspected or approved by the city, but it is difficult to know for sure.

"Lots of people in the city have apartments that are fully used as a dwelling - not just renting one or two rooms - and a lot of those aren't approved. And we don't know about them. And we'll never know about them, unless we are involved in some way through the fire department or through the complaint of a tenant. Right now it is a hidden problem and we can only deal with it as things come to light."

Vincent added the city will take a look into the incident and see if there was anything done illegally as per the current bylaw, and if so, move forward to better protect all renters.