Tired and disoriented after a 24-hour flight from his native Hong Kong, Suet Yan Deng arrived in St. John’s in August, 1991, eager to move in with a local family and to finish his high-school education in Canada. Four months earlier, his parents had responded to a sales pitch by Canadian Marketing Specialists Ltd., a privately owned St. John’s, Nfld.-based student recruitment agency. They paid the company $5,000 to enrol their son in a Newfoundland Grade 12 program, as well as to arrange for a Canadian guardian and a place to live. Deng’s parents were among 42 Hong
Kong and Taiwanese families that paid a total of at least $170,000 to the agency to send their children to school in Newfoundland—an experience that has left many students bitter because, they say, the company failed to live up to its promises. As well, Maclean’s has learned that Canadian Marketing provided all-expenses-paid trips to the Far East to three local school board officials who supported the company’s efforts.
During the two-week recruitment trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan in April, 1991, Canadian Marketing signed up about 70 students. Many of the 42 students who actually came to Canada say that they were attracted to the program in part because of the involvement of the three school board officials—Frank McGrath, assistant superintendent of the St. John’s Roman Catholic School Board, Fred Rowe, assistant superintendent of the Avalon Consolidated
School Board and Myrle Vokey, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador School Trustees’ Association. Vokey declined to comment last week on his involvement in the venture, while Rowe told Maclean’s that he now thinks it might have been a mistake to help the company recruit students. Added McGrath: “I think, in hindsight, we should have been better aware of the implications of going there with the agency. Their motives were different from ours.” He added that he initially decided to help the agency in order to foster closer ties between Newfoundland and the Far East.
But others say that it was wrong for public officials to help Canadian Marketing in its recruitment drive. Newfoundland NDP Leader Jack Harris told Maclean’s: “This is a private company that is selling Canadian services to foreigners and using school board officials to lend it an air of legitimacy. To allow school board officials to help private companies in such a way is an abdication of responsibility.” Two of the three businessmen who own Canadian Marketing, Robert Whiffen and David Badcock, spoke to Maclean ’s last week but declined specific comment on the recruiting drive. Whiffen, however, said that the company received help from Chinese-Canadian businessmen—although he said that he could not remember their names. “It’s like when you go to the United States,” said Whiffen, whose wife is an elementary school principal with the St. John’s Roman Catholic School Board. “When
you’ve seen one black you’ve seen them all. That’s what it’s like with the Chinese.” Badcock, the only company representative to go on the trip, said that the entire episode had “been a nightmare.” He declined to elaborate.
In Deng’s case, his first disappointment after his family booked his $2,000 flight to Canada was that no one from the company met him at the airport as expected. “I got here and I didn’t know anybody or where I was going to live,” recalls Deng. “I phoned a priest, because I’m Roman Catholic myself, and he got some Chinese people who helped me.” Deng, who already had a high-school diploma from Hong Kong but planned to complete Grade 12 in St. John’s to improve his language skills, discovered soon after his arrival that his English was sufficient to enter university. As a result, he left the highschool program and is now a second-year science student at Memorial University. He adds that his family would never have signed on to the program if not for the involvement of McGrath, Rowe and Vokey. Said Deng: “We all thought they were from the education department.”
The efforts of McGrath, Rowe and Vokey on behalf of Canadian Marketing clearly surprised the provincial department of education. Assistant deputy minister Edna Turpin-Downey told Maclean’s that the trip to Hong Kong and Taiwan was not authorized by the department. “We were quite surprised when we found out that school board officials and a representative of school trustees had gone,” she said.
The prospect that taxpayers would have to absorb the educational costs for as many as 70 foreign students also dismayed government officials. At the time, Newfoundland did not charge non-Canadians a fee to attend elementary or secondary school. But in June, 1991, after learning of the recruitment drive, the province imposed a yearly fee for foreign students of $3,500—later lowered to $2,500.
That additional cost is among the Hong Kong and Taiwanese students’ grievances. They say that the company and the three public officials who took part in the marketing campaign stressed that secondary education in Newfoundland was free. And some of them say that they were not told of the new levy until after their arrival in August, 1991.
Hui-Lin Chiu, 20, now a Grade 12 student at Holy Heart of Mary high school in St. John’s, is among those who say that they were surprised by the additional charge. After she arrived in Canada, she says, Canadian Marketing told her about the $2,500 tuition fee and asked her to pay it; when the family refused, the company absorbed the cost itself. At the same time, Chiu says that Canadian Marketing failed to live up to its commitment to provide proper Englishas-a-second-language instruction. Those classes were cancelled after two months, Chiu says, because the students could not understand the teacher, herself a recent immigrant. For her, and for many of the other Chinese students, that was only one of the disappointments after their arrival in Canada.
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