One of the major difficulties Julia Gillard has in convincing her Indian counterparts that Australia is a safe port of call for Indian students seeking educational opportunity is that some of our competitors do a much better job at ensuring racial tolerance is more than just a slogan. Canada, particularly the west coast, springs to mind in that regard.

Attracting students to Australia’s universities requires convincing them, and their parents, that they will be secure and not face the prospect of being racially abused, and that if it does happen to them, they can do something about it.

The recent experience of Indian students in Australia suggests that this is not always the case. There is no doubt that race lies at the heart of the consistent physical and verbal abuse being meted out to Indian students in major cities, despite the irresponsible denials from politicians and police chiefs. Take New South Wales Premier Nathan Rees. On June 5 he was telling the media: “Very occasionally (there are) minor incidents. (There is) certainly no pattern and nothing racially based,” he said. Unfortunately, Rees is not Robinson Crusoe when it comes to this head-in-the-sand approach.

In fact, not only is the issue not minor, but there is evidence suggesting that racial abuse is a bigger problem among Indian students than we realise because many students simply don’t report abuse. Vish Viswanathan, of the Indian Consulate in Sydney, told SBS earlier this year that they do not go to the police because they think it might adversely affect their migration status or that something “wrong will happen to them”.

Meanwhile, in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast it’s a different story. When there are attacks on minorities, including foreign students, police and political leaders are not afraid to call them for what they are — hate crimes. Police departments have hate-crime and anti-racism teams and politicians, in sharp contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach in Australia, talk openly about the need to enhance multiculturalism and diversity and to stamp out race-based crime. Judges will increase sentences if it is proven that the crime committed was racially motivated .

A telling commentary on Canadian attitudes towards students from non-European backgrounds was provided earlier this year in Toronto when a 15-year-old Asian schoolboy was arrested by police after assaulting another student who had racially taunted him. The Toronto Sun reported on April 28 that “hundreds of students skipped classes to rally against racism and to protest the criminal charge laid against the boy, who they said was acting in self-defence”.

There is, of course, racism in Canada, particularly directed against indigenous people and Africans, but it is fair to say that one of the impacts of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms introduced in 1982 in that country, has been to make Canadian society more tolerant and individuals aware that human rights will be protected.

This difference in the legal and political cultures of Australia, and places such as British Columbia and other parts of Canada that attract foreign students, is not a trivial one. Australia’s perennial slow progress on human rights protection and the refusal of its political leaders to recognise that racism leads to crime presents a real opportunity for Canadian universities to attract Indian education dollars.