CHENGDU, China -- Sandy Prentice is the international program administrator for the Kootenay Lake School Division. The name rang no bells for me. It helped, however, when Sandy explained Kootenay Lake is the school division that serves Nelson, a town of 8,000 in southwestern British Columbia.
What on earth are you doing here? I asked.
"What everybody else is doing," she responded. "I'm recruiting students."
We were in a great exhibition hall at the impressive Shangri-la Hotel, built on park-like grounds at the forks of the Jin and Funan rivers in downtown Chengdu. The hall was filled with neat rows of booths, like streets along which thousands of students, many with their parents, window-shopped for an "international" school where they might study in English.
The largest "district" in this booth city was occupied by American institutions, but there were strong representations from the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, New Zealand, Ireland and on and on.
Canada occupied a couple of blocks, where, not surprisingly, B.C. and Ontario had the most storefronts. Quebec was there, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan... but not Manitoba.
They were all recruiting students, evidence not so much of a desire to spread "international" know-how, but of the vast amounts of money spreading know-how can earn.
"International education brings into B.C. about $2.1 billion a year," Colin Doerr, a director with the B.C. Council for International Education. "It's right up there with coal development."
B.C. attracts 106,600 international students of which about 23,000 are from China. There are approximately 265,377 international students in Canada, of which about 80,000 are from China. Foreign students contribute about $8 billion a year to the economy.
Not all of those students arrive from China, although a great many of them do.
Sending children abroad to be educated has long been the practice for China's elites. But its popularity is growing as the middle class grows.
Recent Chinese government data indicate 20 per cent of Chinese families are middle-class, meaning 30 per cent of income is available for uses other than necessities. Given China's one-child policy (changed to two-child at the Communist party's recent third plenum) and a culture of saving, it means there are tens of millions of families that can afford to send their child abroad, and they are doing so in ever-greater numbers, and at ever-younger ages.
"Studying abroad is very popular," Ivy Zhang, my Canadian-educated translator said. "People realize that English is a very strong skill, even if you work in China."
Which brings us back to Sandy Prentice, an exemplar if ever there was of how even the smallest Canadian jurisdictions can benefit from reaching out to China, and in particular to the huge, largely untapped second-tier markets such as that offered by Winnipeg's sister city, Chengdu, population 14 million.
Prentice said Nelson realized some time ago there were benefits for both sides in recruiting international students, especially in recent times when Chinese families saw additional benefits in sending their children abroad at high school (and even younger) ages to prepare for university entrance.
Kootenay Lake today teaches 150 foreign students from 11 countries, the biggest contingent from Germany (for whom skiing is a big attraction) followed by Korea, Brazil and China.
Each student earns the school division $12,000 in tuition, a total of about $1.8 million a year, a lot of money for a division that serves a total population of 20,000 -- the 8,000 residents of Nelson and 12,000 more in its catchment.
Then there are economic spinoffs in payments to host families and to the wider B.C. economy as a result of family visits, usually in Vancouver during school breaks. Often families will buy a second residence in Vancouver to facilitate visits over periods that can span six years and more (three high school years and at least three years of postsecondary study).
Prentice explained Nelson is a "white-bread valley" that has few connections with the increasingly international tenor of globalization.
Part of the foster-parent program is designed to change that, if only a little, by requiring families to prepare Chinese meals and share Chinese entertainments. Relationships between foster and Chinese families often become permanent, as do bonds between students and "Mama Bears and Papa Bears."
Colin Doerr, of the B.C. council, said the one-to-one relationships 80,000 international students a year forge over their time in Canada are perhaps the most significant enduring benefit of international education programs... for both sides.
"They provide the single most important partnerships of all that we do," he said.
In the swirl of bodies, I was often stopped and questioned by students, who assumed because of my age and white beard, I must be a professor. Others would stop me for no other reason than to chat in English. One young man followed me for a time eavesdropping on my conversations. "I find it very interesting to listen to what you say," he explained.
At the Saskatchewan booth, we stopped an older woman, thinking she might be considering a career change, but found instead she was an "auntie" picking up brochures for a niece whose mother was at work and could not attend.
The involvement of extended family in educational aspirations is common in China, where traditional family fealty is now more narrowly focused.
The auntie said she was instructed to collect information about Saskatchewan because "it is safe and has clean air."
It was a recurring theme. Hosa, a strapping 6-2 Grade 12 student accompanied by his much shorter parents, said he was looking at Canada because of its "harmony."
His parents, however, were less philosophical.
"Definitely it will be Canada," his father said. "It is a good country with good air quality."
"Saskatchewan has become pretty aggressive about recruitment," said Ian Morrison, a recruiter for the Saskatchewan Institute for Applied Science and Technology. "Saskatchewan's population has grown 10 per cent in the last five years and will grow by 10 per cent again in the next five years, mostly from Asia. Traditionally, we never pursued them (international students) but now we have to. We need them."
He said the Moose Jaw institute has about 350 students from China and is seeking more.
"Most of them are using us for immigration purposes," Morrison said.
For the most part, Chinese students enrol in programs that also earn university credits. After three years, they graduate and are eligible for permanent resident status, which allows them to work. It also makes them eligible for resident tuition fees, which are about one-third of the $10,000 to $15,000 they had been spending as international students.
If all goes well from Saskatchewan's point of view, the students will remain in the province and became highly trained members of the workforce.
We stopped an intense-looking young woman with large, round owl glasses and short pigtails tied above her ears, her clothing and Ugg boots showing a meticulous fashion sense.
Rebecca said she was a Christian and had chosen her name from the Bible.
I confess an inability to guess women's ages in China, perhaps because they are, for the most part, petite.
I asked her if she was looking for a school to which she might go after graduating from high school.
"I am a master's student in linguistics and I'm looking for a school to purse a doctorate," she replied.
Ah, yes, of course.
Rebecca said she was looking for a school in Canada because "I have lots of friends there."
Her English was flawless, but her accent, like so many accents in China where English teachers might be from anywhere in the global village -- from England to India -- was impossible to describe.
She said, however, that the accent of the country in which she studied mattered -- she wants to sound mid-Atlantic.
I asked if she planned to remain in Canada, return to China, or go elsewhere.
"Maybe, it depends," she said.
Which struck me as an extraordinary thing to say. That a young Chinese woman in Chengdu confidently could contemplate a career path that would take her anywhere in the world of her choosing struck me as evidence of how quickly China has changed.
But when I said so, she responded instantly.
"It has always been this way for some people," she said. "Now there are just more of them."