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It's All History by Jon Malek

Left behind?

by Jon Malek

In the literature on migration and diaspora, the term “left behind” refers to those who remain in the home country, while their family members (or friends) leave to live and work abroad, either permanently or temporarily. In studies of immigration, this group is often forgotten and their perspectives left out. Indeed, many Canadian immigration histories only consider the experience of immigrants once they enter their new country, leaving out their life before migration. Ignoring an immigrant’s life in the homeland, and forgetting those left behind, we only get part of the picture.

Studies on immigration have often taken an economic perspective. That is, the need for well-paid work as a motivating factor in migration. More recently, however, studies have looked at the experiential side of immigration – that is, the perspective of the migrant and their personal experiences. This offers a better perspective than merely treating migration as an economic decision. While “better pastures” might be a motivation, there are a lot of other considerations, such as reuniting with family abroad or even a desire to have new experiences.

This is not to discredit economic considerations. In the course of my work, it has not been uncommon to hear that an immigrant would prefer to remain in the Philippines, were it not for poor economic and employment conditions. More recent literature looks for the experiential aspect in such economic decisions, too. The decision to immigrate is often tied to one’s sense of responsibility to one’s family, whether it is children, siblings, or parents. To some, it can seem ironic that a parent would leave their family to work for years abroad, but while it means leaving family, it might also mean that children can attend better schools, or that a family’s ancestral home can be repaired or rebuilt. This tension is so understandable that it is a common theme in Filipino media, such as the movie A Mother’s Story and a number of Maalaala Mo Kaya specials. There is a lot that goes in to the decision to migrate, but often at the root is family.

Studies of Filipinos in Canada have looked at the experiential side of immigration. In particular, Dr. Philip Kelly – who recently worked with ANAK on a nation-wide study of Filipino youth – has contributed much to this field. His work looks at both experiences in Canada and the Philippines, and provides a model for others to write about. In particular, he has looked at how one’s history and life in the Philippines affects their life and experience in Canada.

In my own work, I’m guided by the principle that an immigrant’s story does not begin once they arrive in Canada. There are a number of factors that have affected the Winnipeg Filipino community. My on-going research with the Foreign Affairs Department shows that in the 1950s and 1960s, the Philippine and Canadian governments were trying to negotiate a fair agreement whereby nationals of each country could enter the other more easily. As these agreements developed, there was also a worsening economic situation in the Philippines, which caused many Filipinos to look abroad for better opportunities. This pattern of looking for a better life abroad has continued for decades. In my interviews with community members, it has often been stated that seeking a better life brought them to Canada.

And so, what of those left behind?

The experiences of Filipinos living in Canada (and abroad) are still tied to the Philippines very often. Immigration does not mean severing ties with family, and with the level of technology available today, communication has never been so instant, cheap, and easy. Thus, immigrant families are able to stay in intimate contact with family and friends, either in the Philippines or elsewhere in the world. There is a lot of literature that studies this from the perspective of the migrant, but more needs to be said about families who remain in the Philippines. How do they understand the migration of their family members? Did they take part in the decision? Do they feel they are benefitting from it? There are so many questions one might ask.

During my most recent trip to the Philippines this last February and March, I had the opportunity to talk to someone whose sibling recently moved to Winnipeg. For context, this individual had worked abroad in Dubai, where another sibling currently works. At present, this individual lives at home in the Philippines and helps run the family store. One lesson I learned from this discussion is that the term left behind is quite often not appropriate, and simply wrong. For one, the suggestion that family members are left behind – which can also be just another way of saying abandoned – creates victims, rather than family members who share in the decision to move. This is not to say that some who remain in the Philippines might not have had a part in the decision making, but it is clear that the decision for an individual to move is not just that individual’s decision. It is one often made after long thought and discussion with family members, and friends. In this interview, it became clear that the migration of the sibling to Winnipeg was not only a family decision, but was part of a larger family strategy.

I love my work. I love how much I learn from my participants. Every single person who I have spoken to has taught me something. This particular interview told me that, as a researcher, I need to be careful about what terms I use. “Left behind” has too many negative meanings: that they are abandoned, forgotten by family and friends; that they do not engage or benefit with the migration of another; that they were not an active participant in the decision for the family member (or close friend) to move. My goal is to best represent the experiences of immigrants to Winnipeg, and Canada, and this work will include that which plays such a major role in many migrants’ lives: family back home, and life in the Philippines.

Does this idea catch your interest? Do you have family or friends in the Philippines who might be interested in discussing their experiences? I’d love to hear from you!

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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