Why can’t this Dollarama cashier fix my teeth?

You may have heard that last fall, and again in January, Cape Breton University experienced a dramatic influx of international students. Of its 4,932 total enrollment, 2,643 (54 percent) now come from outside Canada—probably the highest percentage of any university in Canada. Once an unloved junior college campus of St. Francis Xavier University, CBU is now the bigger institution.

The surge has had a thrilling impact here. For decades, Cape Bretoners have despaired as our children deserted the island. Suddenly young people of color are everywhere. When Dollarama’s new store in the Mayflower Mall advertised 20 openings last fall, 500 international students applied.

Nursing student Parteek “Gunny” Brar, 21 was re-elected president of CBU’s student union last month with 73% of the vote. [Photo: CBC/Tom Ayers]

I look for ways to show my joy at having these newcomers here, but I realize not everyone likes to be singled out as “different,” or “not like us.” So I often start conversations by asking, “Are you a student?”

That’s what I asked a 40-something cashier at that Mayflower Mall Dollarama when I stopped in two weeks ago.

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “I graduate in May.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “What are you taking?”

“A bachelor of science in public health.”

“Oh that’s fantastic. Good for you.”

“Well…” her smile faltered. “I was a dentist at home.”

An accredited dentist in India, working minimum wage shifts at a Dollarama in Cape Breton. What a horrible waste.

On Friday, I stopped into another Dollarama, this one in Sydney River. Plunking a bag of mint candies and a fistful of reading glasses on the counter, I said, “Now you know I’m nearsighted, and I have a sweet tooth.”

The young South Asian clerk laughed.

“Are you a student?”

She was.

“What are you studying?”

“I’m taking a bachelor of science in public health,” she said.

“Oh that’s wonderful,” I said, “but please don’t tell me you were a doctor back home.”

She grimaced slightly. “Yeah, I was a dentist.”

Thirty years ago, CBU made itself the school of choice for Mi’kmaq students, laying crucial groundwork for spectacular recent advances in the island’s five First Nations communities. Now its recruitment of international students is giving Cape Breton a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reverse the demographic tidal wave that threatens to destroy us as a functioning community. If we don’t pursue this opportunity with every resource at our command, we have only ourselves to blame.

For starters, our provincial government should read the riot act to self-governing bodies: Begin dismantling unreasonable barriers to accreditation of internationally trained professionals, or you won’t be self-governing for long.