Growing up in the Philippines, Hernan Argana never saw snow, just the white stuff he and his nine siblings made out of paper. They would cut sheets of foolscap into tiny pieces, throw them into the air and then squeal with delight as the homemade flakes rained down on them.
If nothing else, it allowed the Argana children to imagine they were somewhere far, far away from the often roasting confines of the family home in the city of Muntinlupa. Certainly, young Hernan couldn’t imagine that one day he’d live in the distant world he fantasized about as a child.
Today, Mr. Argana, his wife, Lady Ann, and two young children are part of an immigrant wave that is slowly transforming this iconic tourist stop nestled in the Canadian Rockies. Like many of the newcomers, the 40-year-old municipal employee is a former temporary foreign worker, the kind service-industry towns like Banff have increasingly come to rely upon. He is also one who, after seven years of separation from his wife and kids, has been able to unite them here as landed immigrants to start a new life in Canada.
The influx of foreigners offers undeniable benefits to Banff employers who have always battled high staff turnover of a mostly young, transient work force. But this recent immigrant phenomenon is creating fresh pressures on a community that has historically had housing and vacancy issues forged by the strict limits the municipality must operate under given its location inside a national park.
“There has been a lot of negative publicity around the temporary foreign worker, but in Banff we have come to depend on them,” says Mayor Karen Sorensen. “This town is busy. We need these workers. And the fact so many are transitioning to permanent status is a good-news story, although not one without its challenges.”
While debate about the future of the foreign worker program, and an increase in immigrants more generally, continues to rage across Canada, a different kind of discussion is taking place here. In the cafes and tourist shops that line Banff Avenue, the conversation centres not on whether transitory new immigrants are stealing jobs from long-time Canadians, but how the community copes with their burgeoning numbers. It is a new marriage that comes with a sometimes painful period of cultural adaptation, both for established residents and newcomers adjusting to changes in everything from finances to education, weather to wild animals.
Consider the numbers: According to the 2011 census, 27.3 per cent of Banff’s population was made up of immigrants, compared to just 16 per cent in 2006. The new totals contrast with 18 per cent for Alberta and 20.6 per cent for all of Canada. And for Banff, the immigrant figures do not include temporary foreign workers: 1,375 in 2011, compared to 805 in 2006.
Not surprisingly, the rush of new workers has had a cascading effect on many of the town’s most important institutions.
For instance, an eye-popping 38 per cent of the children attending kindergarten through Grade 6 at Banff Elementary School are classified as English language learners. The second most common language heard on the school grounds is also the second most familiar one detected in town: Tagalog, the native tongue of the Philippines. There are more immigrants from the Philippines in Banff than from any other country in the world (eclipsing the Japanese).
Mr. Hernan left his family in the Philippines in 2005 in search of a job that paid more than he could earn in his homeland. At first, he worked at a Sandals resort in the Caribbean, but then saw an online ad for a breakfast cook at a Tony Roma’s in Banff. He won over the interviewer when he told the story of the paper snowflakes he and his siblings made as children. He arrived in Alberta in 2008 under the temporary foreign worker program and, as soon as he qualified, began making applications to stay permanently under the Alberta immigrant nominee program.