Toronto

Single mom says foreign student hosting company owes her $6K

A Toronto single mother who wanted to host two international students to help pay the bills says she's owed $6,000 after the company she used failed to pay her.

Reportedly unpaid since November, woman says she is going into debt supporting 2 visiting teens

Suzanne Burnie has been housing two students from China, but says she hasn't received payments from the company that placed them with her for three months. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

A Toronto single mother who is hosting two international students to help pay the bills says she's owed $6,000 after the company that sent her the teens stopped paying her and answering her phone calls. 

Suzanne Burnie decided to take in two high school students from China after seeing others do it successfully.

"A neighbour had been living beside me. They were doing it and they told me about their aunt's business and that it was a great way to make extra money instead of taking in renters," Burnie told CBC Toronto.

She contacted Canada's International Student Support Services Inc.(CANISS), a Toronto-based company that helps international students find host families to live with while studying in Canada.

Its website, which has recently been taken down, explained that a host family is expected to provide room and board, three daily meals and access to the internet.

In turn, the host family is given a monthly sum intended to cover costs and provide some extra income.

Woman complains of bounced cheques, no payments

Burnie said she signed a contract with CANISS entitling her to $1,000 a month for each student she housed.

In September 2015, two boys, now 17 and 18, arrived from China.

For the first year, Burnie said, everything was fine.

A cached screen capture shows the CANISS website, which has been taken down.

It wasn't until September 2016 that she said her relationship with CANISS began to deteriorate. She said at that time, the company told her that it was restructuring its payments.

"They said, 'Oh, we're changing our rules and we can't pay you any more on the first [of the month]. We're going to pay you on the 15th,'" Burnie said.

The following month, she said, the payment from CANISS bounced.

"I took a picture of it and sent it to them and asked what's going on."

Burnie said she didn't get a response back for weeks. Then, she said, someone from the company showed up at her door with $2,000 in cash for the month of October.

Company director in Philippines

After October 2016, Burnie said, the payments completely stopped. She said Lucy de Castro, the company's director, hasn't responded to text messages and emails since December 2016.

"All of a sudden [de Castro] says, 'I'm on an emergency, I have to get on a plane. I'm not even in Toronto. You're going to have to wait for me,'" Burnie said about her last interaction with CANISS.

"You can't just leave families high and dry. I'm going into debt. I could barely provide for my two children before and now I have to provide for four with one salary."

Burnie's two international students say they have already paid a full year's worth of fees to CANISS. (Chris Mulligan/CBC)

In an effort to stop dealing with CANISS, Burnie approached the families of her two students, hoping they could send her the monthly payments directly. 

"That's when I found out from the kids that they actually paid their entire year in advance to this company. So the company should have the money to pay me," said Burnie.

Both boys say they have told their families in China about the situation and their parents were concerned that they'd end up on the street.

Burnie said they've become like family and kicking them out is not an option; she just wants CANISS to keep its end of the bargain.

CBC Toronto tried repeatedly to contact de Castro, even going to the condo building where her business is supposedly located, but no one answered the door.

Finally in an email exchange last week, de Castro told CBC Toronto that she had "an emergency here in Manila," that her lawyer would contact the CBC and that she was doing everything she could to "put up the funds to pay the hosts ... to the extent of selling a property to cover this up."

On Wednesday, de Castro's lawyer, Gustavo Camelino, emailed a statement to CBC Toronto: "Our client is diligently addressing the issues raised by some of its host families. Our client has advised that it has reached out to the host families and that it will continue to do so until all issues are fully and satisfactorily resolved."

As of Wednesday evening, Burnie said she hasn't heard from de Castro since she left the country. 

Not recommended by school board

Burnie is not the only person who has complained about not receiving the money CANISS owes them.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board said it was contacted by a few host families in early January who said they haven't been paid by CANISS for months.

Vincent Burzotta, superintendent of education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, says CANISS is not recommended by the board. (Linkedin)

Vincent Burzotta, superintendent of education at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said CANISS is not on the board's recommended list of home-stay organizations.

He said the board has "had problems with CANISS before," but declined to describe those problems.

Burzotta said the board has no authority to force de Castro to pay the families, but he "is very concerned and is monitoring the situation."

The board has told de Castro to rectify the situation immediately and has contacted the agencies in China that work with CANISS on study-in-Canada programs.

"We reached out to the agencies in China that recommended her," said Burzotta. "They are very sympathetic to the situation and are looking into helping the host families out in some way, possibly subsidizing some of the costs."   

Burnie will file a lawsuit

Currently, there are 22 home-stay families connected to the Toronto Catholic District School Board that have used CANISS.

Olive Spence, who took in students sent by CANISS, said she has had to deal with bounced cheques and late payments from de Castro.

In a Jan. 10 email that Spence is copied on, de Castro writes that her "business partner, Mr. Victor Castillo … ran away with huge amount of money from the company and I was left by myself solving the problem. I have consumed all my resources but I am trying to solve the problem to pay off all my outstanding home-stay fees which is until June 30, 2017."

In a business registry search, CBC found that CANISS is listed under de Castro. Victor Castillo doesn't appear anywhere in the Ontario Corporation Profile Report.   

Burnie said she plans to contact the other host families and file a lawsuit. 

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