The first Filipinos in Canada
By Jon Malek
In conversations with friends and colleagues interested in immigration, I am often asked when Filipinos first immigrated to Canada. My standard response is “In the 1950s, and especially the 1960s, although…” And that “although” is loaded, too. The story of Filipino immigration to Canada before the 1950s is a relatively little known piece of Canadian history, partially because there is not much documentation of this. Typically, when one talks about immigration to Canada from the Philippines, one is discussing the period after 1962, with the easing of immigration policies, and especially after 1967 with the implementation of the Points System, which is still in effect today.
Winnipeg has been an especially important destination for Filipinos; from 1967-1973, 3,802 Filipino immigrants came to Manitoba, next only to Ontario (with a significantly larger number of 13,849). Of course, such immigration to Winnipeg predates 1967, as ANAK’s recent oral history project has shown. In volume one of the project’s published series, Darlyne Bautista shows how the immigration of Filipino professionals in the late 1950s contributed to the growth of Winnipeg and development of Canada. This oral history project, consisting of original research conducted by ANAK, resulted in the museum exhibit From Manila to Manitoba and was hosted at the Manitoba Museum in 2010 (the oral history project has an active blog at http://manila2manitoba.blogspot.ca and volume one can be purchased online http://anakbooks.ca)
The period of the 1950s and 1960s is often presented as the beginnings of Filipino immigration to Canada because it was during this time that sustained communities began to take root. Before the implementation of the Points System in 1967, Canadian officials identified which groups of immigrants were admissible and inadmissible, based on racial, ethnic, or geographic considerations. As such, many countries in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa were deemed as not preferred, including the Philippines. However, by the 1960s the Philippines began to pressure Canada to open its doors to Filipino migration. The Canadian government discovered that the Philippine Congress was considering a law that would deny foreigners from entering the country if their home nation denied access to Filipinos. Canada was thus pressured to allow the entry of Filipinos and by 1962 began to create criteria for entry that was based on an applicant’s skills rather than geographic origin.
What of the period before the 1950s? According to Marcial Q. Aranas, the first two documented Filipinos arrived in Canada around 1931. Three others came between 1931 and 1945, with an additional five between 1946 and the early 1950s. The difficulty with tracing these movements have to do with how immigrants have been classified by the Canadian government. Federal departments submitted annual reports to the Canadian Parliament, which were published under the title Sessional Papers until 1930; after this time, the respective departments published their reports independently. In order to track who was immigrating to Canada and where they came from, the origins of the migrant were recorded. Today, immigration statistics are given in terms of country of origin; thus, immigrants from the Philippines are classified either as from the Philippines, or as being Filipino (in Manitoba immigration statistics, the national language of the Philippines is also a category). However, in the period before the 1940s especially, the ethno-racial background often described immigrants. This is a reflection of how white Canadian immigration officials viewed immigrants, not so much by their country of origin or what skills they might have, but by their racial identity because, it was erroneously believed, this would have affect their integration into Canadian society.
So, if you look for “Filipino” immigration in the period of 1900-1925, you will be disappointed to see that there is none because this was not used as a category. However, if you know how the Canadian government may have referred to Filipinos, things become more interesting. In the year 1901-1902, it is recorded that five “Malays” migrated to Canada. No other information is given (which is common of such government statistics), such as where these five came from or to where in Canada they went. The pressing question, though, is what is this category referring to? The term “Malay” as used in this government report is not be confused with today’s ethnic Malays, a group centered in the Malaysian Peninsula and parts of Indonesia. Rather, “Malay” was a term used to refer to groups of Austronesian peoples, of which many inhabitants of the Philippines are included.
While I cannot say for certain that these five Malays were Filipino, I think it is very plausible, and even likely, that they were. Of all Malay groups – specifically, of all Southeast Asian nations – in the beginning of the 20th century, Filipinos are the most likely to have come to Canada as they were already in the United States. With the arrival of American colonialism in the Philippines in 1898, immigration to the U.S. began almost immediately as Filipino workers came to work on the sugar cane fields of Hawai’i and the agricultural industries along the American west coast. These were seasonal workers, meaning that Filipino workers would often move along the coast to find work. Often, this brought them north to work the fisheries in Alaska. Other Asian groups, such as Chinese labourers, were engaged in similar work and often came to Canada over the U.S. border in search of work. Is it not plausible, then, that Filipinos working in the U.S. came to Canada in search of seasonal work as well? I think it’s not only possible but I would argue, very plausible.
While the sources are not specific, a little understanding of the historical context in which this information was recorded suggests that Filipinos might have been in Canada long before 1930. Can we say this for certain? No, but we can rightly say it’s a good possibility. If these five Malays were Filipino, that would be a pretty amazing fact, I think!
- The work presented here is part of my original doctoral research on Filipino immigration to Winnipeg.
- Marcial Q. Aranas, The Dynamics of Filipino Immigrants in Canada. 1983.
- Darlyne Bautista, Winnipeg’s First Health Professionals (c.1950-1970). 2012.
- Glenda Tibe Bonifacio, Pinay on the Praries. 2013.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org