The Filipino community in Calgary


The Filipino community in Calgary is diverse and dynamic, mirroring the homeland itself, an archipelago of several thousand islands in the Pacific, unified by history and struggle. Although Tagalog is predominant, Filipinos in Calgary speak dozens of languages. More than fifty Filipino associations thrive across the city, loosely affiliated but intensely active. In fact, go to any city where there are Filipinos and you are bound to see a wealth of voluntary organizations. This reflects the reality that the Philippines has one of the most vibrant civil societies in the world.

As a migrant people, Filipinos establish footholds in many new lands. The first ones to arrive face many daunting challenges – almost always alone with no family, no one understanding their native tongue and the weight of knowing that you are paving the way for others to come. The first recorded Filipino immigrants arrived in Canada in 1931. Their skills were needed in the fields of nursing, teaching and health. Because these were typically female dominated professions at the time, most first generation Filipino Canadians were brave women.

Ironically, many of Filipino immigrants from the 1940s to the early 60s considered Canada a temporary stop. They were working in the United States and crossed the border into Canada, hoping to have their US visas renewed so they could return south of the border. While most of them did return to the US, some decided to stay in Canada, many settling in Manitoba. Because of them the total number of Filipinos in Canada grew to 770 by 1964.

In the 1960s and 70s, with new opportunities opening up in Canada, a wave of Filipino professionals, many in the medical and teaching professions, arrived from the Philippines and the US. In Alberta, many Filipino immigrants came as teachers. But unable to teach in the Calgary school boards, many were invited to teach in the province’s First Nations reserves. This has led to unique connections between the Filipino and Indigenous communities, a relationship that has more recently come to light.

With the onset of family immigration in the late 70s, skilled workers and family unification policies from the 1980s onward and live-in caregiver programs, the Philippines became one of the top source countries of immigrants for Canada. In 2008 it superseded China as Canada’s leading source of immigrants.

Calgary is home to over 50,000 Filipinos making it the fourth largest Filipino community in Canada. On almost every week throughout the year, there is an activity happening in the community. Singing contests are held in various restaurants. Basketball and other sports leagues are widely attended.

Senior citizens’ clubs organize events for older member of the community. The Filipino Students Association and the Kasiyahan (Celebration) stage programs highlighting the community’s rich cultural heritage. Various associations organize picnics and other social and religious activities. An organization called Babae holds sessions around the issue of women’s empowerment. Volunteer organizations, like Ahon and the Philippine Emergency Response Team, raise funds for calamity victims in the Philippines. Several Filipino newspapers have wide circulations. And the Fiesta Filipino, which started in 2015 draw tens of thousands of Calgarians in September in a vibrant celebration of culture, food and community building. Calgarians are discovering the unique flavours of Filipino food. Like the Filipinos themselves, the cuisine is a unique blend of homegrown traditions spiced with southeast Asian, Chinese, Spanish, Pacific and other influences.

The themes that are so fundamental to this community are outgoingness and caring. The Tagalog word bayanihan – to be a hero to each other – sums up the Filipino’s sense of community responsibility. Filipinos are both spiritual and practical. Nowhere is this mix more evident than in the community’s contribution to Calgary’s Catholic diocese. While Filipino priests comprise a significant portion of the diocese’s clergy, Filipino volunteers ensure that various parish committees and choirs are functional.

With the growing success of our city’s Filipino community, there has been an emergence of Filipino entrepreneurs and professionals — doctors, engineers, dentists, teachers, academics and accountants. Former caregivers persevere to resume or establish careers after they become permanent residents. But this process of integration into Canadian society is far from complete. Community members point to the problem of non-recognition of skills, education degrees and qualifications. There are other challenges, including the need for services for new immigrants, finding meaningful jobs and integrating into the larger Canadian society. Despite these, the community itself continues to thrive, as it creatively grapples with issues of identity and purpose.