On a freezing day in December 1988, Carmelita Tapia landed in Calgary with her husband and two small children. “By mistake,” Tapia recalls. “I was aiming for Australia. But I went into the wrong embassy.” Which, in Manila, the Philippines, is located just one door away from the Australian embassy in the same building.

Now a successful businesswoman and the President of the Vancouver-based Southeast Asia Canada Business Council, Tapia does not regret the mistake: “The social safety net here is very good and there are more opportunities.” And, she adds, living in Canada has been good for her children: “We were not poor in Philippines. We had our driver, our maid. But we wanted a more pleasant environment for our kids and I don’t think they can get it in the Philippines.” Many Canadians are aware that the Philippines has been a leading source country of immigrants to Canada, and that between 2010 and 2013, it even overtook China and India as the top source country. There are now 700,000 people of Filipino origin in Canada, a number that is expected to reach one million by 2025.

What many may not know, however, is that what attracts many young Filipino (and other Southeast Asian) newcomers is sometimes more about values than it is about economic opportunity.

Earlier Immigrants’ Search for a Better Future for the Next Generation

As of 1965, there were only 770 documented Filipinos in Canada. The first Filipino immigration wave that followed in the 1970s was comparatively small-scale, and featured educated professionals, predominately women, who worked as nurses, doctors, dentists, engineers and in other skilled occupations.

But over 43,000 Filipinos came to Canada in the ‘second wave’ that began in the late 1980s. Between 1996 and 2001, the number of Filipinos rose by 35 per cent while the overall population growth in Canada was only four per cent.

Family networks are a major factor in explaining the growth of the Filipino diaspora. The Family Class Sponsorship program has amplified this factor even further. Unlike Tapia’s family, which was granted the visa based on their merits, many Filipinas choose to come to Canada because the program allows families to immigrate and stay together. The Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP), launched in 1992, granted foreign workers permanent residence status after the caregiver met the two-year, full-time live-in employment requirement, after which their spouses and children could join them.

This second wave has been intertwined with Canada’s movement to import domestic workers and live-in caregivers, which perhaps explains why a large number of Filipinos in Canada are employed as low-paid nannies.

“Many Filipinos will stay (in Canada) and send money back home,” explains Tapia. Despite a family separation of up to four years or more, the LCP remains a key incentive for Filipinos of the older generation to come to Canada and work as caregivers.

To Filipino Youths, the Old Assimilation Way is Not Enough  

But for Rosanna Wisden, a fourth-year Filipino student majoring in political science at the University of B.C., and her peers, reasons for staying in Canada may be changing.

First, while Canada still strikes her and many of her peers as a place of opportunity, they do not necessarily share the mentality of members of early waves that they have to stay here. “I am looking for jobs here, in the UK, or in the Philippines. Basically everywhere,” says Wisden. Although the newly-imposed annual cap on the decades-old LCP will not affect skilled employees like Wisden, the nearly seven per cent unemployment rate in Canada and the high cost of living in cities like Vancouver could  drive some young international talent away.

However, Canada does hold a different kind of appeal, one that is less based on economics than on values. Although she is aware of the gloomy job market, Wisden notes that “this is a more liberal and more tolerating society. Here, people don’t judge. In Asia, you have to care too much about what others think, whereas in Canada, it emphasizes on us being different, and that we are all immigrants in some way. People embrace different lifestyles and cultures.”

Canadians’ “obsession” with environmental protection also impresses the younger generation. Mild Napatsanan, a Thai student who came to Vancouver four years ago to pursue a double degree in economics and anthropology, said she chose the city over the United States because of its nature and greener environment. While she still goes back home to visit once a year, Napatsanan is more comfortable with “the Canadian way of life” than with life in Thailand. “People in Thailand go to malls as leisure,” she says. “Most of them care about shopping and fashion, but not so much about nature and outdoor activities.” Similarly, when asked to describe Canada in three keywords, the first two that came to Wisden’s mind were “environmental sustainability.”

What also distinguishes these younger members of the diaspora from the older and more established immigrants is the way they wish to engage with their adopted country. When Tapia first arrived, she had a difficult time starting over: “We have to assimilate. We have to mingle. We have to learn the Canadian way of life.”

But this dynamic is changing. More and more, young people are calling for increased two-way interaction rather than one-way assimilation. “It is just difficult to explain Filipino culture or Asian values unless you are talking to a Canadian who has travelled to the region,” says Wisden. Much as she has been enthralled by Canadians’ respect for individuality and the degree of freedom people enjoy in this place, Wisden sometimes wishes her Canadian friends can understand the way Filipinos or Asians in general interact with and show concerns about the seniors and juniors. “At one time, I was chatting with my Canadian roommate about a personal family issue. I was telling her I shouldn’t be talking about stuff like that to my sister, who was then 11-year-old. But no matter how I explained it, she can’t comprehend. She thinks my sister was old enough to know a lot of things. It’s quite difficult to make them understand when it comes to these social norms.”

Elder immigrants also begin to reflect upon how young Filipino immigrants should respond to the values of their adopted country. Tapia, for example, is both happy and worried about how well her children have assimilated to the Canadian culture. “In the Philippines, when kids see the elderly, they would put their hands on the forehead to show respect. No more (such tradition) here.” To Tapia, the “Canadian way of life” means having less say over her own children’s decisions or lifestyle. But at home, Tapia has insisted they speak in Tagalog, the national language and one of two official languages of the Philippines (the other being English), just so that they “don’t forget their roots.”

The call for mutual respect for Filipino culture is further amplified by a group of young Filipino Canadians who campaign for Tagalog language education in B.C. public schools. Vancouver has one of the largest Canadian populations of Tagalog speakers, with over 47,000 reporting that it was their primary language at home in 2011. Outside B.C., Tagalog is now the most common immigrant home language in Edmonton and the second most common in Calgary, after Punjabi.

Canada made it clear during Philippines President Benigno Aquino’s recent visit that it would build stronger ties with the Philippines. Economy-wise, Canada, especially Western provinces such as Edmonton, Winnipeg and Regina, has created a wealth of new opportunities for Filipinos; the Filipino community in Canada will undoubtedly continue to thrive on the growing economic exchange between the two countries. Yet, as is proven in many cases, economic power alone doesn’t always work. When it comes to appealing to the millennial in Asia, Canada is not yet a strong competitor to the U.S., U.K., and sometimes Australia due to its geographic distance and a relatively low-growth economy.

Canadian foreign policy is closed tied to “niche diplomacy,” whereby nations concentrate resources in specific areas and reap the best returns. In the case of the Philippines, the large scale of the Filipino diaspora group in Canada is its niche market since the group tend to have close links to their fellows both in Canada and back home. In the eyes of young Filipino Canadians who aspire to play a larger role in Canadian policy, cultural exchange and mutual respect is the key to fostering a positive, long-lasting, and far-reaching people-to-people link between Canada and the Philippines in the new age. To build the type of mutual understanding young Filipino talent are seeking, Canada should work on increasing Filipino’s social influence in Canada. Whether it is to acknowledge the increasing Filipino impacts on education and work sectors, or to create more channels for exchange to encourage Canadians to visit the Philippines, Canada will need to rethink its trade-centric diplomacy as time changes and exploit the cultural and human resources it has within the country.


Lotus Yang Ruan (@lotus_ruan) is a M.A. Candidate in Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia. She writes on China’s current affairs and studies social media. Read her portfolio (www.ruan-yang.com) or follow her blog here (www.lotusruan.wordpress.com). This article is supported the Junior Research Fellowship by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

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