OTTAWA - The federal government is spending millions to lure more foreign students to Canada, but their increased numbers may not be as welcome on university and college sports teams.
Rules restricting how many non-Canadians can compete in post-secondary level sports are increasing, causing concern among civil liberties advocates who say such policies are discriminatory.
But both the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association and Canadian Interuniversity Sport say the regulations are necessary to keep Canadian sport Canadian and the playing field level.
For colleges, the issue comes to a head this week as their athletic association meets in Montreal where members are expected to debate how many foreign students ought to be able to compete and in what sports.
Currently, there are caps on the number of non-Canadians who can compete in basketball, volleyball and soccer — and caps could be expanded to cover badminton, golf, curling and cross-country running.
Meanwhile, at the university level, there are long-standing rules for men's basketball. Rules for women's basketball were added in the last year and the regulations were extended to volleyball last week.
"It's just an exclusion that is no longer appropriate in modern Canada," Nathalie Des Rosiers of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said Monday.
At Holland College in P.E.I., international students make up about four per cent of the student body and efforts are underway to raise that number to about 10 per cent, said Michael O'Grady, the college's vice president.
The college has been lobbying for years to have the caps on sports lifted and supports a counter-motion at this week's conference that would increase the number of spots available for basketball and soccer.
O'Grady said the sustainability of Atlantic colleges and universities depends on international recruitment and telling students they'll have full access to a range of opportunities at the school is part of the draw.
When sports are taken out of the mix, recruitment efforts are harmed, he said.
"Students want to represent — represent their school and represent their home country, wherever that may be," he said.
Capturing more of the international student market has become a key goal for post-secondary institutions and the government alike.
Foreign students are estimated to contribute as much as $7.7 billion to the economy and in the last federal budget, the Conservatives promised to spend $10 million over two years on marketing efforts to woo more.
The government has also expanded a visa program designed to keep foreign students in Canada after they graduate.
But O'Grady said the government is sending a mixed message.
"Without quotas or restrictions we grant you access to our libraries, our cafeterias, to elected office on our student unions," he said.
"But we restrict your access to our gyms and our playing fields."
A spokesman for Bal Gosal, the minister of state for sport, did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.
The rules are necessary, said Sandra Murray-MacDonell, executive director of the collegiate association.
Colleges vary in size, financial budgets and location and the rules ensure a bigger school in a more popular city can't leverage that to stack a team, she said.
"If we didn't have those rules there would be a widening gap between members within our organization which would diminish the quality of play at our national championship," she said.
The rules also need to be considered in the context of how many international students are at a given school, suggested Tom Huisman, director of operations and development at the university association.
In 2010-2011, international students made up 8.5 per cent of enrolment at post secondary institutions in Canada, Statistics Canada figures show.
In basketball, current regulations restrict foreign students to roughly 20 per cent of the team roster, Huisman said.
"It's not like there's zero allowance, in terms of having them participate," he said.
"It's a cap limit that we believe to be a reasonable one and hopefully one that won't negate the international recruitment efforts of the institutions."
At Medicine Hat College in Alberta, officials have yet to run into problems with the existing quota system, said college president Ralph Weeks.
The school doesn't go out to actively recruit athletes, though would like to offer them a full range of activities once they arrive, he said.
"The college's position is we'll follow whatever (the association) rules, but from my perspective, all students should have the opportunity to participate in sport," he said.
"The depth of the bench should really depend on the talent you have in your institution."