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Ruthcelie Diala, shown in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2013, came to the Yukon capital from the Philippines in 2009 under the Yukon Nominee Program, which fast-tracks foreign workers for permanent residency and citizenship. (IAN STEWART FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ruthcelie Diala, shown in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2013, came to the Yukon capital from the Philippines in 2009 under the Yukon Nominee Program, which fast-tracks foreign workers for permanent residency and citizenship. (IAN STEWART FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE NORTH

Filipinos find opportunity and community in Canada’s North Add to ...

This is part of The North, a Globe investigation into the unprecedented change to the climate, culture and politics of Canada's last frontier. Join the conversation with #GlobeNorth.

When Ruthcelie Diala’s cousin suggested a new home to her, it sounded exotic. She thought it might be in Japan.

“That was the first time I had ever heard of the Yukon,” she recalls.

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It was a world away from the Philippines, where the 36-year-old Ms. Diala had grown up and worked as a university research assistant. Low wages had driven many of her relatives away in search of work. Ms. Diala had gone to Dubai for a contract job in the construction sector, but she was seeking more stability and opportunity. So she went to Whitehorse – joining a growing Filipino diaspora in the North’s largest city.

Despite a climate radically different than home, Filipinos have flocked to Yukon largely for service-sector jobs with comparatively high wages that allow them to send money back home, where average household income is $5,000 a year. They’re part of the changing face of Canada’s North at a time when development boosts demand for labour and the chance for a firm foothold in Canada. There were 630 Philippines-born people among Yukon’s 35,000 residents in 2011, Statistics Canada says, though locals say the true number could be triple that by now. Along with another 860 Filipinos counted in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in 2011, Filipinos are the largest foreign-born cohort in the North.

In Whitehorse, a local Filipino store and restaurant can be found downtown, a Filipino newspaper has sprung up and a Filipino-born, long-time resident serves on city council. This is the Northern outpost of Canada’s large Filipino community: more than 500,000 spread across the country, most in such cities as Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg and many evident in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, when Canadian Filipino groups rallied to raise money.

Yukon’s Nominee Program was introduced in 2007, and has become a common entry-point for Filipinos. The territory is widely viewed as one of the best routes into Canada because of its high pay – a minimum wage of $10.54, higher than any province and behind only Nunavut – and streamlined path to entry and permanent residency. On the recommendation of her cousin, who had lined up a job for her, Ms. Diala arrived in Whitehorse in May, 2009, and received her permanent residency the next year.

“I think I’ve found my home here, and it’s a land where there’s equal opportunity,” says Ms. Diala, who’s now seeking citizenship. “There’s opportunity as long as you work hard.”

Stoked by a mining boom, the Yukon unemployment rate is one of Canada’s lowest, behind only Saskatchewan and Alberta. “There was a need, [beginning] years ago, in the labour force that we could not fill from within, or elsewhere” in Canada, says Darlene Doerksen, who heads the Multicultural Centre of the Yukon, which runs settlement programs. Once up North, many Filipinos “self-recruit,” she says, by telling employers of relatives abroad who could move to Whitehorse.

The local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, for instance, is co-owned by a local Filipina woman, Joy Allen, who says she hires mostly Filipino workers. “I am of Filipino descent and I know Filipinos are great workers. … We hired different nationalities, but it’s hard to keep them,” she says.

Roi Habben Agapito moved to Whitehorse in 2009 and has worked at Tim Hortons ever since. Many of his family now live in Canada. “My curiosity made me go here, because it’s a different culture, different weather, that’s why I’m here now,” he says.

But it’s never easy to emigrate. Mr. Agapito has settled in by taking up skiing, volleyball, rock climbing and camping. Ms. Diala recalls arriving in Yukon in the evening and being surprised by how high the sun still was. She took a job at Subway – where she still works evening and weekend shifts – but has since been hired full-time at the multicultural centre as well, helping other newcomers. “There are just times when you’re in the middle of the crowd, and you feel so alone. I’m looking forward, and in my mind I was thinking it’s just temporary…,” she says. “I stop thinking about what I have left behind. Since I am here, I have to embrace what I have right now.”

Although employers face rules around bringing in foreign workers – they have to advertise locally, for instance, but struggle to find workers – there have still been problems. In 2012, CBC reported the case of two Filipino workers in Whitehorse who quit a local convenience store after the owner allegedly demanded kickbacks from their paycheques. “That was an exception, we were taken aback,” says Mike Buensuceso, who leads the local Filipino association and co-owns a Filipino store and restaurant.

Valerie Royle, Yukon’s Deputy Minister of Education, which handles immigration, says Yukon offers as fast a path to residency as federal rules allow. “Certainly our program is very streamlined, and with our small numbers we can certainly move things much quicker,” she says.

As more Filipinos have made it through applications for residency and then citizenship, Ms. Doerksen says talk has turned to how to recognize foreign qualifications, for cases where migrants aim to return to former professions. “Only now are we at a point where people have come through their process and are now ready to connect to the labour market in a more meaningful way,” she says.

All told, immigration has helped improve diversity in the territory, Premier Darrell Pasloski says. “We pride ourselves on the cultural diversity we have in the territory,” he said in an interview. “And what we’re seeing is some incredible ethnic communities growing in the territory as a result of things like the Nominee Program. The Filipino community, the Chinese community, African community … We’re seeing some great diversity, and it’s wonderful. It really does add to what the Yukon is.”

Ms. Diala and Mr. Agapito say they have no plans to leave. Now, Ms. Diala uses Skype to keep in touch with family abroad – including those who’d never heard of Yukon. “I’ll just take out my laptop and show them the weather here,” she says, later adding: “The easiest thing to say is it’s close to Alaska, that’s the perfect description and easy for them to understand. They’ve heard of Alaska, but haven’t heard about the Yukon.”

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