When Rod Cantiveros arrived in Winnipeg with his wife Linda in 1974, he knew very little about his new home. Including the fact that there was a thriving Filipino community already here.
"I was just so shocked," said Cantiveros, 69, a journalist and entrepreneur who first came to Winnipeg to work in a garment factory. "I really had no idea what Winnipeg was like. Nobody talked that much about the city and I didn’t know anyone from the Philippines who had gone there. But then I arrived, and I found there were so many Filipinos already here. I said to myself, ‘How could this be?’ "
How indeed. Starting in the late 1950s and continuing today, Filipinos have flocked to Winnipeg for reasons that are not entirely clear. Certainly, iterations of favourable immigration policy have helped. Offers of jobs and, sometimes, citizenship are widely circulated around the Philippines. And it appears the critical mass of expat Filipinos, which has built to nearly 60,000 today, is the biggest draw.
Cantiveros said he and Linda were not initially committed to staying in Winnipeg; they both thought a two- or three-month trial period in Canada would likely end with a return to Manila. But with so many Filipinos to support them, that trial period turned into a lifetime as a Canadian.
For nearly 40 years, Cantiveros and Linda, who died several years ago, were among the most visible faces in Winnipeg’s Filipino community, both as prominent activists but also as publishers of the Filipino Journal, one of the leading media voices in that community. Cantiveros said Filipinos have demonstrated an ability to go anywhere at any time when there is a good job on the other end. However, the fact so many Filipinos have stayed in Winnipeg — a city not generally considered a mecca for immigrants when compared to Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver — speaks to the special qualities of this community.
"Every Filipino who comes here finds that Winnipeg is a very welcoming place," he said. "There is a uniqueness to this city. We help each other get by. It’s a very social place, a place to make a life."
Although there is no way to empirically measure a community’s capacity to welcome immigrants, the numbers do seem to speak for themselves. In the past five years, Manitoba’s Filipino community has grown by 50 per cent. The most recent statistics from the province show on top of the 38,000 Filipino-Canadians already living here, between the 2006 and 2011 Census, an additional 19,108 immigrants from the Philippines arrived in this province.
From family reunification to skilled workers and employer sponsorships, Filipinos have always taken full advantage of the immigration opportunities offered by Canada. The most recent influx is a direct result of the provincial nominee program, a federal initiative that allows individual provinces to directly recruit immigrants with specific job skills needed for that province’s labour market. It has been a wildly successful program in Manitoba, where it has helped to spark record population and economic growth. And the gross majority of applicants to Manitoba through this program are from the Philippines.
But that still doesn’t address why so many Filipinos have come to Manitoba in the first place. To be sure, this is a people who fearlessly leave their homes to take work on foreign soil. Almost any foreign soil.
I have twice travelled to the Philippines. First, to write a series of stories about the immigration industry in the Philippines; the second was to cover the 1998 election in which former vice-president and movie actor Joseph "Erap" Estrada was elected as president. In those two adventures, I learned one very important thing about the Philippine world view: they will travel anywhere for work.
About 94 million people occupy the 7,000 tiny islands that make up the Republic of the Philippines. It is one of the most dense countries in the world, with more than 300 people per square kilometre. Compare that with Canada, which has a population density of about three people per square kilometre. It’s hardly surprising then that Filipinos have a long and robust history of travelling abroad for work. There are simply not enough opportunities at home.
Everyone you talk to, no matter where you go in the Philippines, has a story about working abroad. Some go for just a few months; for others, it is a lifetime spent taking contracts working in Saudi Arabia toiling in the oil fields, or California homes providing child care or Australia, working in agricultural industries.
Although it is difficult to identify a specific number, it is thought more than 10 million Philippine-born workers live abroad. The money these foreign workers send home is staggering. The Philippine Central Bank reported in 2008 total remittances from Filipinos working abroad at more than $15 billion, which is about 14 per cent of the country’s GDP. No other country in the world is as reliant on foreign remittances as the Philippines. The national government has even established a separate department to oversee foreign workers and protect their rights overseas.
Once again, that explains why so many Filipinos work abroad. It does not necessarily explain why they came to Manitoba, and in such large numbers.
A handful of Filipino-Canadians lived in Manitoba as early as the 1930s, but many believe the foundation for today’s burgeoning community was laid in the late 1950s, when small numbers of Filipina nurses and teachers arrived. Most had been working in the United States and only came to Canada to re-apply for new work visas. Perhaps not surprisingly, a handful remained in Manitoba.
Those first arrivals were followed by several distinct waves of Filipino immigrants. In the late 1960s, the first Filipino garment workers began to arrive, and would continue to flock to Winnipeg with job offers from city clothing manufacturers. Due diligence was not a hallmark of these offers; many were hired sight unseen by Winnipeg companies, with little more than a reference from an existing Filipino worker.
Despite the distance from the Philippines and the climate, which continues to be among the biggest issues for new arrivals, Manitoba’s Filipinos put down deep roots. And for reasons that are not entirely well known, Manitoba’s Filipino community has earned a prominence and influence that exceeds its actual numbers.
Manitoba has, by far and away, produced the most Filipino politicians and the most political firsts. Even numerically larger communities in Vancouver and Toronto have not produced anywhere near the same number of Filipino politicians.
In 1981, former NDP MLA Conrad Santos became the first Filipino to ever hold elected office in Canada. Culture and Heritage Minister Flor Marcelino was not only the first Filipino woman elected to a provincial legislature, she was also the first to hold a cabinet post. In federal politics, Winnipeg’s Dr. Rey Pagtakhan became the first Filipino-Canadian to be elected to the House of Commons (1988), and the first to receive a federal cabinet appointment (2001). Add to that list other elected officials like current Winnipeg Coun. Mike Pagtakhan and former MLA Chris Aglugub and there has been a long and distinguished tradition of Filipinos in Manitoba politics.
In the final analysis, it appears so many Filipinos have come to Manitoba because those who came here first built a special community. It probably helps this is a smaller province with a smaller capital city; Filipinos live in closer contact to one another, giving them a greater chance of building a cohesive community.
Fred De Villa, a longtime community activist, said even today, Winnipeg is not considered a high-profile destination for many Filipinos looking to work and live abroad. For those looking at Canada as a potential destination, Toronto and Vancouver still seem to be the more likely landing spots. However, for those who know someone already in Winnipeg, the advantages of moving to a smaller city are hard to ignore.
"We are just very closely knit here," said De Villa. "In other cities and provinces, you know right away it’s not nearly as close. You may know some of your family, but that’s it. Here, you have your whole family plus an entire community."