Filipinos in Canada before 1900
by Jon Malek
In the past, I’ve been excited to share with readers some discoveries I’ve made throughout my work on the history of Filipinos in Canada. In particular, I’ve been interested in tracing the earliest Filipinos in Canada. Previously, the earliest thought date was the early 1930s according to research by Marcial Q. Aranas, however, I had shown that this should be pushed back to September 1924, when a Filipino clerk was recorded entering Canada via the United States to work in Quebec. Filipino migration to Canada prior to the Second World War would have been facilitated by the colonial link between the United States and the Philippines.
During this imperial era, Filipinos were legally American nationals who were able to enter the country while other Asian groups were barred. As famously written by Carlos Bulosan in America is in the Heart, Filipinos experienced racism from American society, and had difficulty finding work. As many were located along the American west coast, including Washington State, many looked north to Canada for work. There is evidence of this in the Canadian national archives, where an M.P. from British Columbia is recorded complaining of the numbers of Filipinos “knocking on his door” to enter Canada. He went on to suggest a comprehensive ban on Filipino and other Asian immigrants from entering Canada.
In the last few months, though, I’ve made some exciting finds that confirmed my suspicions that Filipinos had been living since at least the 1900s. I suspected for a few reasons. First, it has been well documented that Chinese and Japanese labourers moved along the west coast (of both Canada and the United States). Second, for centuries, Filipinos had a tradition of migratory patterns in East and Southeast Asia in search of labour, and under the Spanish traveled to the Americas on the so-called Manila Galleon. This annual maritime link between Manila and Mexico brought silver from Spain’s American colonies to trade with China, with Filipinos manning these vessels. There are even communities in Mexico today that are descended from these seafarers. A third reason was that, after 1898, when the United States claimed the Philippines as its territory, Filipinos immediately came over the Pacific to work the burgeoning agricultural industry. To me, it seemed reasonable to expect that Filipinos would eventually follow the migratory patterns of Chinese and Japanese up north to British Columbia.
So I was pleased to hear from Joseph Lopez from British Columbia of research he had found on Canada’s first Filipinos. He shared with me photos of a man named Benson Flores who lived on Bowen Island in B.C., with photos dating him to the 1890s. This was an amazing find because it places Filipinos in Canada by at least 1890 – less than 30 years after Canada became a country – and means that he first Filipinos were likely following trans-Pacific migratory patterns of other Asian groups, rather than colonial links. A problem with popular Canadian history that troubles me is the suggestion the country was a product of white settlers, mainly English and French speaking. The truth is that other ethnic groups had contributed to the building of Canada (not to mention the Aboriginal histories that are often left out), and there is now no doubt that Filipinos must be included in that history.
The knowledge of Benson Flores put me on the trail of other early Filipinos in Canada, because surely he was not alone. It is unclear if Benson was married or with a child, although he is recorded as living with a woman and child (it is unclear if they were Filipino or not). But other documentary evidence suggests that, indeed, Benson was not alone. Early vital statistics from British Columbia – such as birth, marriage, and death certificates – indicates that there was an early community in Canada during the 1890s. Indeed, the earliest second generation Filipino in Canada that I’ve found was Flora Lorienzo, who was born in Vancouver in 1890. While it is possible that her parents came to Canada in the same year, it is likely that her parents had been in Canada for a least a year before.
What marriage records also suggest is that Filipinos were marrying other Filipinos – signs of the earliest Filipino community in Canada. For decades, Filipinos have been proud of the contributions that they have made to Canada, and in the 1970s and 1980s (as now) the community in Winnipeg was engaged in conversations about how they would contribute to the Manitoban and Canadian cultural mosaic. It is now without a doubt that Filipinos have a long history in Canada that gives them a place in the nation’s history and creation. Men like Benson Flores – who was an adept sailor – provided valuable services for other early Canadians by ferrying people around the community and catching food from the ocean. Indeed, one of the favourable stories of Benson was that he would travel from home to home in Bowen Island in his canoe, leaving nets full of crabs for residents to enjoy.
When people talk of Filipinos in Canada, the late 1950s are often assumed as the beginning of Filipino immigration. While there may have indeed been an increase in immigration during this time, this leaves out sixty or so years of Filipinos living in, and contributing to, Canada and Canadian society. It’s time we open up this history and rewrite the books!
Marcial Q. Aranas, 1983. The dynamics of Filipino immigrants in Canada.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.