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Hernan Argana and his wife Lady Ann are photographed with their two daughters: Hershey Anne, age 7 and Hershey Ynan age 11 near their home in Banff, Alberta on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Hernan Argana and his wife Lady Ann are photographed with their two daughters: Hershey Anne, age 7 and Hershey Ynan age 11 near their home in Banff, Alberta on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Banff’s changing labour landscape Add to ...

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.

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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.

After years of repeated efforts, Mr. Hernan was finally granted landed immigrant status on Jan. 18, 2012. His wife and children arrived in Banff less than 10 days later; it was only the second time they had seen Hernan since he left in 2005. Eventually, he moved on from Tony Roma’s to take a job with the municipality as a sanitation worker, in part because of the pay, in part because of the staff accommodation provided by the town. He also works nights as a security guard. Lady Ann is employed as the assistant manager at a clothing store.

“It was very hard being apart for so long,” says Lady Ann, sitting at a table at Evelyn’s Coffee Bar on Banff Avenue. “He would send home almost all of his money to us every two weeks. He lived on nothing. But he wanted to support us. But it was hard, especially when we were hit with floods and earthquakes. That is when we wanted him with us.”

Lady Ann smiles while wiping away tears streaming down her cheeks. Her two daughters look up at her with concerned expressions. She reaches over and gathers both of them closer. Hershey Ynan, 7, wraps her arms around her mother’s arm. An older daughter, Hershey Anne, 11, huddles against her sister.

“But now we are all together,” Lady Ann says. “It is like a miracle. It really is. The people here have been so incredibly kind to us. The people at Settlement Services have helped us find our way. We have finished paying most of our debts back home and so now we can begin saving for the future, for the girls’ education. It is a miracle that God brought us here.”

Then there is the beauty of the place. “Our breath was taken away the first time we saw the mountains and the snow,” Lady Ann says. “We can’t believe that there is such a place as beautiful as Banff in the world. We are so lucky.”

Despite the foreign workers, Banff remains a rite of passage for many young Canadians who come to work and ski. I called the place home in the 1970s, living in a youth hostel and paying for my beer by working for a tree-pruning company. I have been drawn back many times over the years for visits. There are still many who land here for a summer or winter to party and ski and sow their wild oats before moving on.

But the new immigrants, especially the ones transitioning to permanent residency, are not only changing the demographic makeup of the town but also increasing its population. Once upon a time, most workers coming to Banff took up one bed. But with new immigrant workers bringing their families, that one bed has suddenly become four or five.

Rainier Jalalon arrived in Banff from the Philippines in September, 2012, initially to take a housekeeping job with the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. A trained nurse, Mr. Jalalon came under Canada’s skilled workers program and as a result received landed immigrant status shortly after arriving. His wife and two children in the Philippines quickly followed him. Housing has been an issue.

“It’s very hard to find anything here,” says Mr. Jalalon, who now works as a nursing assistant at the local hospital. “And anything there is, is very expensive. It’s the biggest problem immigrants face after they get here.”

According to the 2011 census, Banff’s population increased 13.2 per cent from 2006, more than twice the national average. The mayor says the population is now likely close to 8,600; under federal statute, it has been capped at 10,000. In 2013, the vacancy rate for rentals hovered just over 1 per cent. Ms. Sorensen says she was just told it is now zero.

The town has effectively reached commercial build-out – meaning it has bumped up against the boundaries drawn by the federal government for commercial and residential expansion. To build housing to accommodate more residents, Ms. Sorensen and her council have had to get creative.

For example, the city is giving developers a break on the fees it charges them to put in parking stalls. “We’re trying to find ways to reduce the developer’s costs so they might be incentivised to build apartment-style housing,” Ms. Sorensen says. “If we can reduce their costs, hopefully they’ll in turn reduce the rent they charge. But at the very least it’s giving the builder a reason to build multiunit housing, which we desperately need.”

For new immigrants in Banff, one stubborn fact of life is the high cost of living. The mostly menial jobs that temporary foreign workers and new immigrants do will never pay much – but they could certainly pay more, argues Alison Gerrits, supervisor of Family and Community Support Services.

“It boils down to the main industry here, which is hospitality,” Ms. Gerrits says. “That said, wages are not keeping up to increases in the Consumer Price Index.”

The median family income in Banff increased 5.6 per cent from 2006 to 2011 – less than half of what it was for all of Alberta. Meantime, the CPI over that period was 11.4 per cent. “So that is a huge challenge for us,” she says. “We need wages to at least keep pace with the cost of inflation.” The median income for a single person in Banff in 2011 was $28,220 and, for a family, $72,200.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many new immigrants are looking for better-paying opportunities elsewhere in Alberta. Fort McMurray has become a prime attraction, according to Mr. Jalalon, who says he knows many Filipinos who have left Banff to take housekeeping jobs either in Fort McMurray or in oil-sands work camps. “In the last week I know 10 people who left to go up there,” he says.

Jeanie Godfrey, supervisor of Banff’s Settlement Services office, says another big issue is “reunification.” The path to immigration for temporary foreign workers through the provincial immigrant nominee program requires separation of one family member from the others for a minimum of four years, she says. Sometimes, though, it can be up to eight.

“So that presents unique challenges when the spouse hasn’t lived with their partner for that length of time, hasn’t parented their children for that length of time,” Ms. Godfrey says.

Naturally, long separations can lead to conflicts upon reunification. Add to that adjusting to new societal expectations, such as in education. In Canada, it is anticipated parents will play an active role in their child’s schooling, including meeting with teachers and keeping abreast of their son or daughter’s progress in the classroom.

Dean Irvine, principal at Banff Elementary, says this can sometimes be a struggle with immigrants from countries like the Philippines, where the culture says you leave education to the educators. “My experience is that is pretty standard in Asian countries for parents to say to teachers: ‘You’re the experts, you take care of things, we don’t necessarily need to communicate.’ That’s been a challenge here, but I think it’s getting better.”

Then there is the adjustment to living alongside moose, elk, deer and sometimes bears. When one elementary-school teacher noticed children from the same Filipino family absent a few days in a row, Ms. Godfrey’s office called to inquire what was going on. It turned out the mother couldn’t walk her children to school and didn’t want them going alone for fear they might encounter some wild creature.

“It’s all about educating them,” Ms. Godfrey says.

Mr. Jalalon says his family has adapted fairly easily to life in Canada, and a decidedly different climate than that of the Philippines. He has been surprised at how welcoming the people here have been, which is much different than the treatment he received in Abu Dubai, where he worked as a paramedic for two years before coming here. There, he says, Filipinos were treated as second-class citizens. Not in Banff.

If anything, he says, he wishes the many Filipinos in Banff worked harder to integrate themselves into the community, to do things like volunteer. Instead, many keep to themselves or stick close to their fellow countrymen. The Filipino community in Banff is too insular for Mr. Jalalon’s liking.

“There was a bad typhoon back home in November of last year – Typhoon Haiyan,” Mr. Jalalon says. “And it was the people of Banff that led the fundraising to help out, not the Filipinos here. I felt quite ashamed by that.”

Many here are concerned about the chill the federal government has put on the temporary foreign worker program. It is a reaction to stories suggesting some businesses are discriminating against non-immigrant Canadians because they don’t believe they have a comparable work ethic to employees they’re bringing in from overseas. But Darren Reeder, executive director of the Banff Lake Louise Hotel Motel Association, says the two resort communities desperately need the TFW to compensate for the loss in workers to higher-paying resource jobs elsewhere in the province.

Mr. Reeder says the fact many of these foreign workers are converting to full-time residents has been a huge benefit to towns like Banff. “It’s been wonderful to see [foreigners] become immersed in the community,” he says. “But we still need assistance in better meeting the needs of our foreign national population.” Despite challenges around housing and other issues, he says, “the fact so many want to become permanent residents speaks to community spirit and the lifestyle we offer. They’re saying: ‘It’s a price worth paying.’”

Hernan Argana agrees. He says his life in Banff far exceeds anything he had in the Philippines, even when factoring in the long hours he puts in at two jobs. He has his family together. His youngest daughter is hugging him now – for the first time since they were brought together two years ago. She understands he isn’t going anywhere, that it’s safe to talk about family vacations they might take.

Before Lady Ann and the daughters joined him in Banff, Hernan would go to the Western Union office every two weeks to wire money home. He got to know the staff and told them about an expensive operation that his youngest daughter, Hershey Ynan, needed to fix the holes in her heart with which she was born. The family had to borrow thousands of dollars to pay for it.

One day, Hernan noticed a collection box in the store with a sign attached. He didn’t understand the words, which were written in English. A few weeks later, however, the store staff presented him with a cheque for more than $500 – the box was set up to help defray some of his daughter’s medical expenses.

“That’s when I knew this was a special place that had special people living here,” Hernan says. “That’s when I knew this is the place I wanted me and my family to call home.”

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