The Right to Learn: Access to Public Education for Non-Status Immigrants

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By: Navjeet Sidhu
Org: Community Social Planning Council of Toronto (CSPCT)
Date: 2008

This study examines the challenges, fear, and safety concerns non-status immigrant families face in regards to accessing the public school system.


Access to public education for all children and youth under 18 in Ontario is both a right and a requirement under provincial law. The Ontario Education Act explicitly states that no child can be denied access to schools because they, or their parent(s), lack immigration status in Canada.

What is New or Significant in this Report?

The authors suggest that, to their knowledge, this is "the first Canadian study of its kind."

While that may be so, there are many useful and practical resources available to us in the sector on this issue. If you are facing this issue with any of your clients, the following resources will be helpful to you:

While the law is clear, this study suggests that there are inconsistencies regarding enrollment procedures and other protocols in Toronto schools. Many of the non-status immigrant families that we interviewed experienced difficulties with and expressed deep-seated concerns about accessing schools in Toronto, up to and including the denial of enrollment of children and youth in some local schools.

This report provides a snapshot of the experiences of those families with the Toronto public education system, identifies barriers that families are facing, and puts forward recommendations aimed at ensuring access to public education for all children and youth regardless of immigration status.

Seventeen participants (15 parents/guardian and two youths) were interviewed for this study. This small sample size is attributed to both the limited funding available for the project, as well as the challenge of recruiting families that live with the risk of deportation. Many non-status immigrants are reluctant to come forward and share their stories for fear of being reported to authorities.

Despite its small sample size, this study raises some important questions regarding the accessibility of Toronto public schools for non-status students and students whose parents lack legal immigration


Participants identified several barriers to accessing Toronto schools:

  • Enrollment Denied on Basis of Immigration Status: Four of the adult respondents reported that their children had been denied enrollment into a Toronto District School Board (TDSB) school based on immigration status; one of these parents was refused access by four different schools.
  • Documentation Requirements: Of the 17 respondents, 15 stated that immigration status came up during the enrollment process. Participants were asked by the school to provide proof of immigration status, such as passports, refugee papers, visas, or an application pending an immigration decision. Two families experienced difficulties enrolling their children in a Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) school due to religious affiliation.
  • Lack of Information Regarding the Right to Education: Eight out of the 15 adult respondents indicated that they were unaware that their children had the legal right to attend school in Ontario. The study also shows that not all Toronto school staff are aware of the legal rights of non-status students.
  • Fear: Six out of 15 adult respondents indicated that they were hesitant to try to enroll their children in school for fear of being reported to immigration officials by school administrators. Parents also commented on the fear of being reported to officials if their child was not enrolled in school.

In addition to enrollment problems, participants expressed concerns regarding their safety, security and involvement in school activities.

  • Staying Under the Radar: Many parents needed to explain what having no status in Canada meant, and instructed their children to be extra careful for fear their status would be revealed. This need for secrecy greatly affected parent and child involvement in school events and activities.
  • OHIP Requirements: Schools require students to possess OHIP cards in order to take part in activities off school premises. For this reason, many children could not participate in school field trips.
This study is available for download in PDF format (620 KB, 38 pages).