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High River’s Filipino flood victims face additional challenges

Rodel Evangelista in High River, Alberta, July 28, 2013.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Rodel Evangelista's future in Alberta depends on an envelope he stashed in some luggage for safekeeping. If he loses the envelope's contents, he has to leave Canada.

Those papers – school documents, birth certificate, training certificates and other forms – are soaked. First, High River's June flooding reached the envelope, and then a July hailstorm battered the papers again when Mr. Evangelista forgot he left them outside to dry in the sun. He came to Canada from the Philippines in June, 2011, and needs the stack of paperwork to maintain his temporary foreign worker status.

"I'm worried," he said as he swept the floor at High River's Subway restaurant. "Most of my documents have been damaged. It is not that easy to get a replacement. It takes time."

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Filipinos made up the largest single group of immigrants to Alberta between 2006 and 2011, and about 800 live in High River, officials say. Filipino flood victims – a community within a community – face unique challenges in the disaster's aftermath, from proving they have the right to live in Alberta to finding food that suits them. High River's Cargill meat-processing plant, along with the town's fast-food restaurants, depend on this workforce – both skilled and unskilled – much the way the energy industry relies on imported workers.

Filipino government officials teamed up with Alberta's Filipino-Canadian businesses to help their countrymen in High River. Calgary's Barrio Fiesta Restaurant, a taste of home for Calgary's Filipino community, is among the many that instantly offered assistance. While the restaurant usually serves up familiar Filipino food like crispy pata (a deep-fried pork dish) and kare kare (beef stew with peanut sauce), for four hours last month the Filipino government took over and transformed the restaurant and its dance floor into an emergency passport office.

Children ran around playing tag while adults filled out documents, sat expressionless for photos, had their thumbs scanned, and sent the results to Manila in Xpresspost envelopes in an effort to ensure permanent residents got new passports and help temporary foreign workers like Mr. Evangelista keep their employment status.

"They are the most vulnerable," Anthony Mandap, the deputy consul-general at the Philippine Consulate-General in Vancouver, said in an interview at Barrio Fiesta.

Work permits, he said, last about two or three years. Temporary foreign workers need passports to renew work visas, and without visas, they could lose their jobs and have to leave. Permanent residents from the Philippines also need their destroyed or soggy passports and documents replaced. The Canadian government recognized this dilemma and granted immigrants a limited reprieve, waiving fees and automatically extending statuses. The special measures are in place until Sept. 19, 2013. (Meanwhile, the Alberta government wants more temporary foreign workers allowed into the province to help rebuild homes and infrastructure damaged in the floods, which hit the southern half of the province.)

Mr. Evangelista's status expires in September, 2014, but if his documents are ruined beyond what the government will accept and he cannot replace them from High River, he will be forced to go to the Philippines to replace them. He can't afford to do that now. "Maybe next year," he said.

Paperwork problems aren't the only obstacle to postflood recovery for High River's Filipinos. Unlike long-time residents, they don't have a thick web of friends and family in Alberta to help out. As a result, there's a high concentration of Filipinos in the province's temporary housing facilities. About 150 families, for example, landed in residences at the University of Lethbridge shortly after it opened to High Riverites in June. Roberto Anga-Angan, his wife Maria Lourdes, and their two kids are sharing a six-bedroom dorm room with three single women. Each room has a single bed and the small communal area is furnished with one long blue couch. This suite comes with a kitchen area.

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"We don't know where we will live next," Mr. Anga-Angan said. The provincial government has said it will move all displaced people living in university residences in Calgary and Lethbridge to the new Saddlebrook temporary housing complex outside High River, but Mr. Anga-Angan said he has not been informed of the move. Folks can stay at Saddlebrook rent-free for three months and yet-to-be-determined fees may follow after that.

Mr. Anga-Angan came to Canada in April, 2008, as a temporary foreign worker and started at High River's Cargill facility six months later. He became a permanent resident last year, and his wife and kids arrived from the Philippines two months ago. He's a butcher – a skilled trade – and now rides a shuttle bus with other displaced Filipinos to Cargill's plant. He leaves Lethbridge at 1 p.m., starts work at 4 p.m., and his shift ends at 1 a.m. But the shuttle, he says, does not leave for another hour, meaning that even with a smooth 2-hour drive back, he returns to Lethbridge 15 hours after he leaves.

Food is also an issue. "For Filipinos, it is not a meal if there isn't rice," Ferdinand Aguirre, the Philippines' consul-general for southern Alberta, said as High River's Filipino flood victims snapped up food hampers in Lethbridge one afternoon. "You could feed them the best meal, but if there's no rice it's not a meal."

Barrio Fiesta's Vilma Buenaventura helped organize the food drive to solve this problem, filling Hong Kong Food Supermarket's cube truck with rice, instant noodles, sardines, Spam and familiar Asian snacks.

Manila and Calgary's Filipino-Canadians are determined to protect their kin.

"They feel so lost here," Mr. Aguirre said of the flood victims in Lethbridge. "But there's someone to hold their hand."

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About the Author

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More


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