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Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser didn't provide any timeline for when Ottawa might lower the number of study permits issued.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The federal government should reassess its policy on international students and consider a cap on a program that has seen “explosive growth,” putting pressure on rental markets and driving up costs, Housing and Infrastructure Minister Sean Fraser said.

The number of international students in Canada has more than doubled since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015, government data show. At the end of 2022, it sat at 807,260.

“The reality is we’ve got temporary immigration programs that were never designed to see such explosive growth in such a short period of time,” Mr. Fraser said Monday in Charlottetown. He noted that unlike the permanent resident immigration programs where the government sets targets each year, the study permit program is a temporary resident program that is driven by demand and doesn’t have a set cap.

He said the growth of the program for international students is happening in concentrated regions of Canada and is putting an “unprecedented level of demand” on the job market but even “more pronounced” demand on the housing market.

Asked if the government should cap the number of international students allowed in Canada each year, he said it’s an option Ottawa should consider.

Mr. Fraser did not provide any timeline for when Ottawa might lower the number of study permits issued. Asked if a change would be made this fall, he said Immigration Minister Marc Miller would have more to say at a later date.

Mr. Fraser spoke to reporters on the sidelines of a three-day cabinet retreat in Prince Edward Island.

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The affordability crisis pushing many Canadians to the brink, in particular owing to rising housing costs, is at the top of the agenda for the meetings. The government wants to come up with new ways to make the first-time homebuyers’ market more accessible and also address rental costs that are increasingly unsustainable for lower- and middle-income households.

Postsecondary schools in Canada have relied more and more on international students for their revenue streams because their tuition fees are much higher than the fees paid by domestic students.

Mr. Fraser said the federal government needs to work with colleges and universities to ensure those institutions also take responsibility for housing the record numbers of international students they’re accepting.

He also said the government needs to more closely scrutinize private colleges, some of which he suggested were illegitimate and taking advantage of the international student permit system.

Some of those schools “exist purely to profit off the backs of vulnerable international students,” Mr. Fraser said. He added that there are some “plaza colleges” that have up to six times more students enrolled than physical space for them in their buildings.

“Not all private colleges should be treated with the same brush,” he said. “There are good private institutions out there and separating the wheat from the chaff is going to be a big focus of the work.”

As part of the federal cabinet’s focus on the housing crisis, it will hear from two of the authors of a report released last week. That report says the spike in rental housing costs is in part attributed to the growth in young adults living in Canada, which is in part linked to the rise in international students.

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The authors call on the government to establish an industrial strategy for housing, saying that in order to restore affordability by 2030, the country needs to build 5.8 million more housing units, of which approximately two million should be rentals.

In Ottawa, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre blamed the government for the sky-high housing costs, noting the rapid rise has happened under Mr. Trudeau’s watch.

“Now he wants Canadians to forget all that and blame immigrants; he wants to divide people to distract from his failings,” Mr. Poilievre told reporters on Parliament Hill.

Mr. Poilievre would not say whether he would lower immigration levels, and instead said that Ottawa needs to crack down on slow-moving municipal bureaucracies that make it harder to start construction projects.

In Charlottetown, the Housing Minister stressed the need to be “really, really careful” not to blame immigrants for Canada’s housing crisis. And Mr. Fraser dismissed Mr. Poilievre’s criticism entirely, saying the Conservatives are now promising what the Liberals have already campaigned on in past elections.

At a separate press conference, Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Cornwall, PEI, that immigration is a key part of the solution for Canada’s housing shortage because the construction industry needs more skilled labour.

“There’s much more we need to do on housing and we’re continuing to step up,” he said. “But we’re going to continue to be the open, welcoming, prosperous and growing country we’ve always been, because that has been something that has led to great opportunities and prosperity for all Canadians.”

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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