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Canada draws a growing number of Filipinos

Durham Filipino Canadian SocietyImage by Chris Lancaster via Flickr
By Joanne Lee-Young, Vancouver Sun
Alma Davac tried stalling, but her grandfather wouldn't let it go. He kept nagging. " 'What's your plan? What's your plan?' I said, 'We're happy here. We're okay.' He said, 'So, you're just going to be happy? What about helping your family? Look at your cousins. They have made a good life abroad.' "
And so, Davac, who managed to stay in her native Manila, the Philippines, for a few years after graduating, caved.
"It's like a herd. Everyone was leaving. An opportunity came up and I said, 'Okay, Granddad, I applied.' He said, 'I am going to die happy.' "
Davac moved to Burnaby 11 months ago on a temporary visa to work as a nurse at Surrey Memorial Hospital. By then, she had logged eight years in Portsmouth near London in the U.K. Her sister, Joan Magtanong, took a more direct route to Canada. In May 2008, she moved from Manila to Fort McMurray, Alta., also on a temporary visa, for a crew member's job at McDonald's.
Quietly and without fanfare, the Philippines has become Canada's largest source country for immigrants and temporary foreign workers, combined.
The two sisters are part of a bulge of skilled and non-skilled temporary foreign workers that is key to the Philippines outpacing China and India as our largest source of newcomers.
These Filipino workers have been coming to Canada via an array of new federal and provincial programs. When Ottawa rolled the first of them out in 2001, the focus was on filling labour shortages in the technology sector. They were expanded to other fields, including nursing, construction trades, truck transportation, fast food services, hotel management, retail and more.
Along with provincial governments, Ottawa then extended a huge carrot -- the ability to apply for citizenship and stay for good.
Filipinos rushed at the opportunity through programs like the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program, which offers an accelerated path to immigration for skilled workers, and the Canadian Experience Class, which started in 2008 and allows some temporary foreign workers to apply for permanent residence after working for two years.
No other popular destinations for Filipinos -- not Hong Kong, Dubai, Australia, nor the U.S., -- offer the same opportunity.
And this has made Canada the dream destination for Filipino workers, according to Prod Laquian, a Vancouver-based academic who studies Filipino-Canadian history.
A desire to stay
Temporary workers are coming in droves, and many hope to stay.
While temporary foreign workers from the U.S., Australia and Mexico tend to come, work and go as the label "temporary" implies, most Filipinos aspire to immigrate.
They come believing there is nothing temporary about their venture, no matter what any first contract might say, says Winston Chan, a Filipino expatriate who has lived in Vancouver since 1973 and has helped to place temporary foreign workers from the Philippines.
The labour exodus from the Philippines is a well-known story. It's one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and some eight million Filipinos work abroad, sending home $17 billion US in remittances that prop up the country's economy. As well, power is entrenched in the hands of a few, leaving ordinary folks with little reason to even dream of change if they stay.
In Canada, astute mainstream businesses have spotted the migration trend and are mining the potential of these not-so-temporary foreign workers.
At Scotiabank, vice-president of multicultural banking Rania Llewellyn says Filipino customers in Canada are a key target for the company's newly tweaked StartRight program, which offers credit cards, savings accounts and mortgages for newcomers. At first, the bank marketed StartRight to landed immigrants, international students and immigrant investors, "but we found if we included temporary foreign workers, the market was much bigger," said Llewellyn.
She emphasized the bank isn't interested in customers who are mere seasonal workers, but "if a temporary foreign worker has a one-year contract to be in Canada, he or she qualifies for StartRight. It means they are being recruited for a specific skill set. As an institution, we can't look at this group as temporary because they come and want to stay."
In fact, Llewellyn has edited the misnomer right out of her marketing materials. "We have moved away from the term 'temporary foreign worker' and we just say 'foreign worker.' We do this intentionally because we know things have changed."
To understand this desire to stay, meet Michael Cruz, a power line technician hired by BC Hydro to climb poles and restore power.
Cruz arrived here in January 2008 on a three-year temporary work permit, but he has applied for permanent residency via B.C.'s provincial nominee program.
He and his wife, Erin Gray de la Cruz, who has a job at a sushi restaurant in Lynn Valley, are renting a house in North Vancouver.
"It's a big difference. In the Philippines, we work hard, but earn less money. Here, we work hard and make lots of money," said Cruz.
Over at Bean Bros., a longtime Kerrisdale establishment that bakes from scratch and serves homemade breakfast, lunch and dinner, 23-year-old Jessica Kalao is trying to establish herself in Canada.
Kalao grew up in the Philippines' Samar province and arrived in Vancouver nine months ago, along with two other workers from the Philippines. She had already worked abroad at a Starbucks in Kuwait for four years, and with that experience, she returned to the Philippines in order to relaunch herself in Canada.
"Because in Arab countries, the salary is also good, but it's only for Kuwaiti people, only for Arab workers. We don't have permanent residence and don't have a chance for that. You can just stay there and renew your contract, renew and renew."
Lots of Filipino food
Here, she's hoping she might get lucky and become a permanent resident.
For the two sisters -- the nurse and the McDonald's worker -- moving to Canada has also given them a way to be closer to each other again.
"There's not a single day that we don't talk to each other now," said Magtanong. "Sometimes, I have to make something up like 'I have to go to the washroom now,' because she just doesn't stop talking. Or we joke, 'Hey, that's the same thing we talked about yesterday.'"
This growing critical mass of compatriots makes Canada an especially attractive place for new migrants.
"My kids have been saying to me, 'Y'know Mom, there are many Filipino kids at school here and they speak our native language and English with an accent.'
They think it's so weird because when we were in the U.K., there weren't many Filipinos," said Davac. "There is lots of Filipino food and shops here. We have actually put on weight. I told my friends, 'Food-wise, you're going to love it.'"
Davac and her husband, a cashier at a 7-Eleven convenience store who is also on a temporary work visa, plan to apply for permanent residency.
In Fort McMurray, sister Magtanong has just hit her two-year mark in Canada. Her contract with McDonald's has already been renewed and she will be promoted to a shift manager, moving her from the non-skilled to the skilled realm, and broadening the ways she might qualify for permanent residency.
For now, however, she is excitedly awaiting the birth of her baby. Her common-law husband also works at McDonald's in Fort McMurray. He came first and bounced around at McDonald's in Red Deer and Calgary before getting reassigned to Fort McMurray when Magtanong arrived there some months later.
She has a young son from a previous marriage back in Manila, isn't too sure yet about the harsh winters of Fort McMurray, and her renewed contract is just for a year. But there is a deep sense of permanence in their plans.
"My common-law husband wants to stay here for a long time. His mind is all settled down here. Maybe when we are retired, we will go back home, I guess. We're kind of thinking if ever given a chance, we would like to buy a house here," said Magtanong. "He's got the same thing going as me; he is helping out with his mom and dad at home. It's a lot of help to them."

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