The Doc Project

How international students are helping an Ontario ski town with its tourism job crunch

After a "critical" shortage of tourism labour in Collingwood, Ont., Georgian College recruited students almost exclusively from northern India to help fill vacant roles at two resorts. The students, meanwhile, have invested everything in the dream of a new life in Canada.

Students in pilot program studying hospitality management while working part time at participating resorts

Wearing the tall hat signalling head chef status for the night's service, Harpreet Kaur Insan (left) jokes with Gurleen Singh and Harmandeep Kaur Brar over the sizzling biryani pan. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)
Listen to the full episode28:59

In a student-run kitchen at Georgian College's Barrie, Ont., campus, Harpreet Kaur Insan tends to a large pot of biryani.

The spicy Indian rice dish is a departure from the sandwiches and fish and chips typically served at the campus restaurant — the result of a novel recruitment program welcoming students from India, in part, to remedy a tourism-related labour shortage in the nearby town of Collingwood.

"At home, our mothers cook for us," said Kaur Insan, 20, grinding ginger, garlic and spices into a paste. "But here, we have to cook — and not just for one or two, but for 60 people. Now, I just want to learn everything."

Known for its picturesque waterfront and ski hills, Collingwood, a town of about 22,000 northwest of Toronto, is a booming tourist destination. A 2018 report examining tourism workforce-related housing issues in South Georgian Bay, which encompasses Collingwood, notes 1,400 tourism-related businesses in the region alone.

But a continued exodus of young people from the region to nearby cities like Toronto, paired with dwindling affordable housing options, has created a "critical" shortage of labour, according to the report. In fall 2017, there were some 800 tourism-related positions across Bruce, Grey, and Simcoe Counties left unfulfilled. 

They're learning the skills that will make them employable in Canada … and hopefully eligible to immigrate here permanently.- Bryan Hunt, Georgian College

In response, Georgian College partnered with Blue Mountain and Living Water resorts in 2018 to pilot a program that recruits international students to fill those roles while they study.

"This to me … is the representation of truly what community colleges were meant to do, in that it works with local communities and local businesses to solve specific economic and labour issues," said Bryan Hunt, associate dean of hospitality, tourism and recreation at Georgian College.

Filling a void

Last May, two Georgian College staff members travelled to Chandigarh and Ludhiana — two cities in the northern Indian state of Punjab where partner education agencies operate — and held intensive recruitment sessions with prospective students. 

"[Some] students had to travel... up to 300 kilometres to attend those sessions, which was a big ask, as a lot of them didn't have their visas yet," said Lindsay Byers, who is a co-op consultant at Georgian College. 

Of the incoming class of 2018, 33 of the 36 students were from India. 

Students of the hospitality management program at Georgian College. From left to right: Gurleen Singh, Manveer Singh, Nicole Gagnier, instructor Rob Warren, Harmandeep Kaur Brar, Harpreet Kaur Insan, and Mandeep Singh Aoulkh. Editor’s note: Rob Warren is the brother of documentary producer Jennifer Warren. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

Blue Mountain and Living Water provide the students with accommodations and part-time work in housekeeping, food preparation and general resort operations. As the students fill these businesses' need for labour, they attend classes at the college to work towards degrees in hospitality management, Hunt says.

"When international students normally come to Canada, their big concerns are where am I going to live and how am I going to have a part-time job," explained Byers. "And both of those we're taking care of before they even arrived."

"They're learning the skills that will make them employable in Canada … and hopefully eligible to immigrate here permanently," Hunt added.  

He says the college is also working on a similar model with a Huntsville, Ont., resort for their nearby Bracebridge campus.  

Pursuing a dream

Back in the kitchen, Harpreet Kaur Insan is delivering orders to her fellow classmates and holding court over the giant biryani pot. 

For her, moving to Canada meant pursuing her dream of being a manager, a goal she says wouldn't have been possible had she stayed in her hometown of Malout in northern India. 

"In India, and especially in the villages, it's just like a culture — girls should not speak a lot," said Kaur Insan, whose natural leadership qualities are often acknowledged by her peers and school administrators.

"I just want to make a name that people can say 'Yeah, she's Harpreet.' … What I want to do, I will do that."

Gurleen Singh, Harpreet Kaur Insan and Manveer Singh wait for the first orders of the night. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

Her classmate, Gurleen Singh, comes over to inspect the biryani before being waved away playfully by Kaur Insan. He hails from the city of Nurmahal in India's Punjab region.

The 20-year-old says the hospitality management program is "amazing."

"I think hospitality makes people humble," said Singh. "No job is a small status job here. You should respect everyone."

But for Singh, being in Canada is part of a larger opportunity to broaden his experiences.

"I want to experience everything in my life… I'm just trying to find where I belong."

Settling in Collingwood 

Despite the opportunities the program has given the students, adjusting to life in Canada can sometimes be difficult, as they battle feelings of loneliness and homesickness.

"It's difficult for a student to survive here, without family and everything," said Kaur Insan, who applied for her husband to come to Canada soon after arriving on a work permit. He joined her in late January.

Harpreet Kaur Insan's husband, Gurvineet Singh, joined her in Canada in January. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

There is also added pressure to succeed from their families, many of whom have invested limited money and resources to send them halfway around the world for a better life for them all, Byers says.

"[They think], if I take this wrong turn or if I don't see around this corner, I don't get permanent residency. My family doesn't get to come over, and the impact of that is profound."

In fact, many of the students have said they'd like to eventually settle in Collingwood, rather than move to larger nearby cities like Toronto or other municipalities like Mississauga or Brampton. 
A poster for an upcoming Punjabi dance night in the hallway of the hospitality, tourism and recreation building at Georgian College. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

If the program is successful, it may mean that change is on the horizon for Collingwood — which, according to the 2016 census, has a population of just five per cent of people who identify themselves as visible minorities. 

Kaur Insan, who admits she has experienced some discrimination since arriving in Canada, dreams of having a temple and more options for spicy food in Collingwood. 

"Those are the things that we are missing," she said.

In this year's cohort, which started in September, 35 out of 40 students are from India, divided evenly between the north and south of the country.

"So they are becoming a part of our social fabric in this community. And I think it's a matter that the community has to recognize, that these … students are the future of the industry," said Hunt.

Back in the Georgian College kitchen, the orders for biryani start flooding in, including takeout orders from other international students hungry for a taste of home. 

From left, Harmandeep Kaur Brar, Manveer Singh, Nicole Gagnier, Gurleen Singh, and Harpreet Kaur Insan. (Jennifer Warren/CBC)

At the end of the night, the students help themselves to leftovers in giant bowls along one of the kitchen counters. It's time for the staff meal.

"This is the best biryani we've made so far," said Singh. 

Kaur was more reserved in her praise: "It's good, but not as spicy as I like."

To hear the documentary "Blue Mountain," tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 

Documentary produced for CBC Radio's The Doc Project by Jennifer Warren, with Julia Pagel and Alison Cook.

Web story written by Jennifer Warren, with Althea Manasan.

Special thanks to Pooja Joshi for her advisement.


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