J1ers: The tale and trials of Vancouver's visiting Irish students

A combination of hearsay, social media, a temporary working visa, and sheer critical mass has made Vancouver the foremost destination for Irish students abroad.

By 1 a.m., over 100 Irish students have filled the cramped house on the southern end of Dunbar.

The garage has been converted into a dancefloor, complete with a DJ. The lineup for the unit’s two overwhelmed washrooms is 20 people deep, and there’s a steady rotation of cabs out front ferrying in more partygoers. By the end of the night, there will be close to 300.

This quiet corner of Dunbar is never this lively: it doesn’t even have sidewalks, and most of the local residents are retired or close to it.

I know because I used to live here. The small floor of this house has already been adapted to fit more tenants: it barely held 6 during my tenancy, but now 16 Irish students live in the unit. Tonight, hundreds of students are filling the backyard, the front lawn and the cramped garage.

All of them are Irish, and all of them are here for the summer on a temporary working visa that has turned Vancouver into a leading destination for an entire generation of Irish youth.

“I find this such a relaxed place,” said Siobhan, a 21-year-old from Dublin. “Then the Irish come over and we’re anything but that.”

The liquor store up the street agrees. “We usually only order two cases of Colt 45 a month in the normal year,” the clerk told me. “When the Irish arrive, we go up to five or six.”

Trump

They call themselves J1ers.

In Ireland, a summer abroad is less a holiday and more a tradition — a cultural rite of passage for a country whose history has been largely defined by immigration and travel. A student’s usual choice was to secure a J1 cultural and education exchange visa issued by the US, often to visiting students.

But after the 2016 election, getting a J1 became tricky business.

“There are numerous reasons for the Vancouver being the latest destination of choice for Irish Students,” said Honorary Irish Consul General in Vancouver John Cheevers in a written statement to The Ubyssey.

“But the primary one can be summed up with one word - ‘Trump.’”

In 2016, the US State Department changed the criteria for obtaining a J1, meaning it now requires both a higher fee and pre-arranged employment — pushing more Irish students to set their sights to the north.

Obtaining a working holiday visa for Canada, comparatively, is fairly simple. Under the International Experience Canada visa, Irish and Canadian youth can visit and work in each other’s countries for two years. And unlike the J1, the visa only requires a fixed amount of cash and for the applicant to be between the ages of 18 and 35.

“They are using [the visa] as that famous rite of passage.”

— Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Eamonn O'Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre

“In order to gain entry into Canada once you acquire the work permit, all you need is medical insurance for the duration of your stay and $2,500 along with a background check of course,” wrote Cheevers. “But that's it.”

Many J1ers only use the two-year visa for three or four months, repurposing it as a chance to spend the summer abroad before returning to classes in the fall. Because the visa lasts two years, many students then opt to return to Vancouver the next summer on the same visa, effectively repurposing it as a new, cheaper and more flexible J1.

“The J1 in America was really about the summer away,” said Cathy Murphy, executive director of the Eamonn O’Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre.

“The fact that we now see the same type of kid using or reinventing our working holiday … they are using it as that famous rite of passage.”

The working holiday program is reciprocal, meaning that the same number of Canadian youth are able to travel to and work in Ireland. But Murphy noted the uptake on the Irish side has been higher.

The success of the program has spurred its growth from 1,000 to 2,500 to 10,700 visas available per year in 2018. Of them, 3,000 are reserved for working professionals and students in education co-ops, but the rest are open to J1ers.

“Canada is now on the radar in the way that it wasn’t,” said Murphy. “There were three big waves of Irish immigrants who came to Canada in the past century. But in this century, it’s a whole new thing.”

I think I just followed the crowd

“Why wouldn’t you want to travel here?” asked an Irish girl at the party on Dunbar. “I mean, it’s the capital of Canada, isn’t it?”

“I think I just followed the crowd to be honest,” another admitted. “I don’t know why I came here.”

After being accepted into the visa program, Irish students are free to live and work anywhere in Canada. But a combination of hearsay, social media and sheer critical mass has made Vancouver their foremost destination.

Originally, Murphy thought J1ers are attracted by similarities to West Coast locales like San Francisco, while noting that many Irish students have also settled in Toronto.

“They were looking for that West Coast experience and that they’re choosing Vancouver for something similar,” said Murphy.

“If the leash loosens or the doors open again in the US, students will continue to choose Vancouver.”

— John Cheevers, honorary Consul General of Ireland in Vancouver

Word spreads quickly in a country of less than five million people.

“Ireland is a very small place so word of mouth is everything and the positive conversations about this beautiful city and its friendly and welcoming residents are most certainly contributing to this influx of temporary Irish residents,” wrote Cheevers.

As the number of J1ers in Vancouver rises, they have found ways to help fellow students set up shop. The Facebook group ‘Irish and new in Vancouver’ acts as a grassroots network for finding everything from housing to jobs to work boots.

Fion, 20, said the group helped him find a job in construction within two days.

“The day after I arrived, I typed on Facebook that I was looking for work,” he said. “I messaged someone on Wednesday, and by the Thursday I was flying in, and I found work on Friday. It was that easy.”

The majority of students interview for this article all had jobs in construction, design and the service industry. With all of those sectors looking for more labour, J1ers have become adept at helping each other secure jobs within days of arriving.

“[They] just say ‘Hey, I’m new, I’m in a hostel, I’ve got one week, does anyone have a room to spare?’ And often that’s how they’re getting tenancies,” said Murphy. “The networking is incredible.”

Now that words have spread, Cheevers and Murphy both agree that Vancouver will see more J1ers in the years to come.

“I think initially Vancouver may have been a convenient alternative place to travel instead of the U.S.,” wrote Cheevers. “But I think if the leash loosens or the doors open again in the US, students will continue to choose Vancouver.”

Making room

But as many UBC students know, Vancouver’s not all smooth sailing.

“Landlords hate students and if you’re out here trying to get a house as a student, you’re fucked,” said Fion.

Fion, Robbie and Jon are three of the residents of the house on Dunbar street. Only six of them are on the lease, but in reality, between 15 and 16 people live in the house to save on Vancouver’s notoriously high rents.

“This probably shouldn’t really be happening,” Fion admitted.

And it’s far from the only case. Virtually every J1er interviewed for this article lived in an over-capacity house.

“One of the girl’s I’m in college with back home is living in a house with 26 or 27 people,” said Jon, 21.

Irish students used to have a convenient arrangement with UBC students. When they returned home for the summer, UBC students would often sublet to incoming J1ers. The UBC students save on rent and the J1ers got a place to live in the neighbourhoods surrounding UBC, where some of them take summer courses.

But stories of J1er parties and overcrowding have led some Vancouver landlords to consider shutting their doors to Irish tenants altogether.

“It’s becoming very difficult for homeowners to even consider renting to the Irish,” said Frank, who is a property manager on Vancouver’s West side. To protect his client’s privacy, he asked that his last name not be published.

“You cannot say [the Irish] are all bad apples.”

— Frank, a Vancouver property manager

Frank has rented houses to students for the last 20 years, but said that for the first time ever, his clients are specifically requesting that their properties not be rented to a specific national group.

“A lot of them are really hesitant, or just flat out ‘No,’” he said.

Under the Residential Tenancy Act, denying lodging to anyone on the basis of their nationality is illegal. But with Vancouver’s vacancy rate hovering near zero, Frank thinks landlords may try to justify closing doors to J1ers by citing what he said is a trend in Irish students abandoning or damaging properties.

“You rent to 8 because this is what the owners want ... When you go in there, there [are] 10 or 12 in there,” said Frank. One summer, Frank added, he rented to 89 Irish students — but only a number of them were on the lease.

He said this leads to frequent parties, property damage and complaints from neighbours that pressure landlords to stop renting to students.

“It’s like a ripple effect, because one [landlord] would know, then another one would know, and sometimes these landlords use recommendations from one of their friends,” he explained. “Some of the landlords are saying ‘Why should I even bother with this?’”

Not everyone has negative reviews of the Irish. Eric Huebert, risk management and housing manager for the UBC chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, said the house is one of several on campus that rents to Irish students over the summer for additional income.

The frats’ housing of Irish students has also created friction with local residents in the past — but Huebert said the complaints DKE and other houses receive are “no different from September or a busy time of the year.”

The University Neighbourhoods Association (UNA) did not respond to a request for comment.

While they “like to party,” Huebert said the backlash against the Irish may be due more to a difference in party culture than malice.

“Their fashion of partying is a lot more crazy, I’d say … But they’re all very good natured,” he said. “They’re not trying to break holes through walls.” Despite this, Huebert did note that DKE no longer rents to Irish men, who he said “get a little crazy sometimes.”

J1ers agree they can be disruptive, but argue that their activities are no different from other international students in Vancouver, with some noting that a stereotype around Irish drinking culture could be contributing to their sour reputation. Most agree that the J1ers housing reputation is likely due to a few “bad apples,” and that the same housing issues likely exist for other international students too.

“Most houses at the end of it are clean,” said Connor, 20. “They’re not filthy. I wouldn’t say we’re bad tenants.”

“In terms of accommodation, I don't think these students face any more issues with finding accommodation than any other Vancouverite,” wrote Cheevers.

Frank, for his part, said that he liked his Irish tenants, adding that he made a point of helping them find work and maintaining properties during their stay. He still keeps in touch with some of them and even wrote a reference letter for one former Irish tenant for her law school application.

“You cannot say they are all bad apples,” he stressed. “There’s a high percentage of it, but there are some that are really good.”

But less understanding property managers aren’t buying it. J1ers have already felt a disproportionate obstacle in finding housing — and it’s only bound to get worse.

“We were told to not look like an Irish student coming over for the summer because they hate that,” said Fion. “If you’re an Irish student, you’re fucked.”

Frank thinks that some J1ers may already have been forced to end their trips early for sheer lack of housing.

“They say that usually about 7,000 will come for the summer,” he said. “But by the third week of June, 2,000 of them will go home because there’s no accommodation for them.”

After the crash

Irish immigration to Vancouver began long before the J1ers. A whopping 15 per cent of Canadians claim partial Irish ancestry, including Thomas D’Arcy McGee — one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation — who was born in Ireland.

Even in the last decade, the J1ers are just the newest addition in a new wave of Irish immigration. But their reputation for partying here has also created generational frictions.

After the 2008 recession, high unemployment pushed many Irish professionals to travel to Canada as part of International Experience Canada.

“After the big crash of 2008, it felt far less like a rite of passage and tragically more like the young people were forced out because they had to find work and had to go abroad,” said Murphy. The Eamonn O’Loghlin Irish Canadian Immigration Centre, where she works, was founded with the mission of helping new Irish emigres settle in Canada, most in their late-20s or mid-30s.

“There always were young Irish coming here over the last eight years, but they tended to be a bit older ... they were coming after that and seeking opportunities here.”

That wave of immigration has helped stimulate a new wave of ties between Canada and the Emerald Isle. Last year, the Ireland-Canada Chamber of Commerce was established in Vancouver. The year before, Cheevers — a UBC alumnus — was appointed honorary consul general, partially to facilitate the budding exchange of young people between the two countries.

“Whether or not it’s deserved, the Irish obviously have a pretty bad reputation in this city.”

— Robbie, visiting Irish student

But this older generation of Vancouver Irish isn’t all fond of the J1ers. On the ‘Irish and New in Vancouver’ Facebook page, stories abound of established Irish worrying that the J1ers will spoil their reputation in the city. Negative media coverage — from tales of alleged J1er partying printed in the Irish Times, reports of a disastrous party at Trump Tower and a J1er who streaked naked across a baseball field in Seattle — only contributes to it.

“I think it’s a small group shaping public opinion on this, but it’s regrettable,” said Murphy. “Anyone coming here on a working holiday is representing their country.”

For their part, J1ers think the stories of their debauchery are overblown.

“'I’ve seen two lads walking down the street drinking cans. Call the police!’” Fion laughed. “It’s ridiculous.”

Other J1ers added that European drinking cultures, in general, often involve much later hours than Canadians are used to, which could be contributing to the frequency of complaints. Still, they acknowledge the perspective of more established Irish residents.

“I think that’s absolutely fair if you’re moved here a few years ago to start a family and now this is your home,” said Robbie.

“Whether or not it’s deserved, the Irish obviously have a pretty bad reputation in this city.”

Cheevers did not indicate he was aware of reports of J1er partying, but proposed delineating the J1-style visas from the working holiday ones, which were marketed towards working professionals.

“People who genuinely want to live here for full 1 or 2 years are the ones being penalized,” he wrote. “... [A] ‘3 month Temporary Student Working Holiday Visa’ should definitely be considered in my opinion so as to give everyone the opportunity to live in this picturesque city.”

Murphy stressed that the relationship between Ireland and Canada shouldn’t be boiled down to a few incidences of partying.

“I think it is really important to point out that there has been the Irish coming here not just in the last 10 years but over a decade have made really historically positive impacts here,” she said. “They’re not on the radar at all because they’re not causing any problems.”

Whatever the case, all signs point to more and more J1ers looking to make Vancouver a temporary home — even as the real estate market tightens.

“I think initially Vancouver may have been a convenient alternative place to travel instead of the US,” wrote Cheevers. “But I think if the leash loosens or the doors open again in the US, students will continue to choose Vancouver for the unique lifestyle that this city offers.”

— With files from Jack Lamming