Arctic Life: Filipinos in Iqaluit

Arctic Life:  Filipinos in Iqaluit

By Marjorie Soldevilla

I am in awe of the resilience of Filipinos in Iqaluit.

I recently travelled to Canada’s smallest and northernmost capital city of Nunavut. It is known for its long cold winters and short, cool summers. The average daily low temperature in February is -32oC and even colder with the wind chill. Snow storms can hit in October and November, and February through April. A few weeks before I arrived on April 14th, 2018 it was -4oC but I am told that the 90km wind makes it definitely feel much colder. It’s not surprising the city shut down.

Iqaluit receives about four hours of sunlight during the shortest day of the year (December 21st), but during the longest day of the year on June 21st, the sun is up for almost 21 hours.

I went to Iqaluit on business and had the good fortune to meet our kababayans who have chosen to live and work in this remote community.
I also wanted to know why.

According to their anecdotal estimates, the Filipino population has grown to about 150 people. Iqaluit’s population is approximately 7,250, made up of approximately 60% Inuit. They are not fly-in fly-out employees but rather, have moved there to become part of the increasing mosaic community. It is a similar trend happening in other parts of the Arctic region like Yukon and Whitehorse where Filipinos have been answering the call to fill the labour shortage necessary to sustain growth.

Judy Regalado Gabuna is one of the pioneers from the Filipino community to live in Iqaluit. She and her husband Bob originally immigrated to Winnipeg with their 2 young boys in 1987. In 2006, she made a leap of faith by accepting a job with the Government of Nunavut, Department of Health and Social Services.
It was only supposed to be a one-year stint.

Despite the often unforgiving winter, high cost of living and pangs of home sickness of being away from her family, she found that there’s something about the city that pulled her in and made her stay to this day.

Judy found fulfillment in her current career as a Financial Manager for the Government of Nunavut, Department of Culture & Heritage. She added that it’s not just about the better compensation that goes with the career advancement which may not have been attainable for her in Winnipeg. She was a CPA in the Philippines and had not worked at that level during her 19-year residence in Winnipeg. It’s also about the satisfaction of embracing and respecting the local Inuit culture and giving back to the community for sharing their land.

Judy has no qualms about partaking in traditional meals like frozen caribou, arctic char and other Inuit ‘country’ food. She feels honored to have been invited to their homes and makes an effort to converse in Inuktikuk (Inuit language) when interacting with the locals. I can tell from their smiles that they appreciate it very much. When I was with Judy, people often mistaken her for an Inuit. Judy also volunteers at the St. Jude’s Cathedral and holds fellowship meetings for women in her home on Wednesday evenings.

At the time when most people rent, the Gabunas were the first Filipinos to build their own home from the ground up. A process that was daunting because materials and furnishings had to be shipped via sealift which can take several months.

So what do Filipinos do other than work to ease the loneliness of being so far away?

I was fortunate to have been invited to the lovely home of Floreen and Nenette Demavivas. There, I met their super cute son Alex, their adorable puppy and other kababayans mainly fellow Ilonggos. Floreen is employed as a capital planner with the Government of Nunavut. They meet every Saturday for potluck, play radio bingo and sing karaoke. There’s no need to go to a Bingo Hall, you can purchase bingo cards and tune in for numbers to be called and if you have a winner, just call it in. Someone they know had actually won $20,000! Yes, there’s mahjong, after all it’s an Ilonggo party. And yes, they have The Filipino Chanel (TFC)! They are hoping to have GMA too but it’s not marketed there yet. Of course, we had delicious Filipino food with ingredients purchased from the local North Mart including authentic palabok noodles. They also have an annual Christmas party.

There is much natural beauty in Nunavut. On my first evening in Iqaluit, I saw the incredible northern lights or aurora borealis in Judy’s backyard. She was so kind to wake me up and the 3 teachers visiting from Spain at midnight so we can witness mother nature’s light show. An experience I will never forget. I ecstatically crossed it off my bucket list. “The landscape here is majestic and awesome. The sky can change every minute,” said Judy. I have been inside an igloo large enough to accommodate 4 gals taking a selfie, learned about dog sledding and drove around town in a Ford Escape kindly loaned by Floreen. I visited the museum, the Visitors Centre, churches, cemeteries and other tourist sites. You often hear people say, I’m in the middle of nowhere. In Iqaluit, I actually made it to the Road to Nowhere!

In the Summer, Pinoys enjoy fishing, picnics (including the Philippine Independence picnic) or simply enjoy the beautiful landscape. According to Princes Tabanao who previously lived in Toronto for 9 years, “I like the quiet small town with wide open space. There’s fresh air, no traffic and no long commute to work. Life is more laid back.” One downside? “There’s no mall!”, said Princes. Before she and Marlene Maranan arrived, they were provided with housing which is a stone’s throw away from the hotel where they are employed in the office.

Filipinos are known to be hard-working people and it’s no different in Iqaluit. Almost everyone I have met has multiple jobs and helps their families financially back home. Our kababayans’ work ethic and adaptability knows no boundaries. They also shared that in Iqaluit, they have an opportunity to use the skills and education they studied in the Philippines. Degrees that gave them the advantage to enter Canada are often not recognized once they arrive, so they end up under-employed mainly in the service sector.

Like Marlene and Princes, Kriz Sarte also immigrated to Canada under the Live-in Caregiver program. After working for several years as nannies in other Provinces, they heard about employment opportunities in Iqaluit. During the day, Kriz is employed part-time in accounting at the Law Society of Nunavut. She also operates a daycare and has her own cleaning business where she works after hours. Kriz has been working tirelessly to support her family in the Philippines with the ultimate dream of bringing her 3 children to Canada to have a better future. After many years, she is finally reunited with them this year and live together in Iqaluit.

Maria Christine Gumban, originally from Jaro, Iloilo, also lived in Toronto and found the 2-hour commute too long. “There’s also more competition for jobs in Toronto. Here, the wages are higher.” She was a Business Administration graduate of San Augustine University and had also worked as a nanny in Toronto. She later studied and received a certificate in Supply Chain and Logistics which helped land her a job in housing procurement at the Nunavut Housing where she currently works. She also works part-time as a Shelter Worker at the YWCA. “I miss the social life in Toronto but you can create it here too. You learn to appreciate what you have.” added Marie.

Ramon Santos also has a finance background in the Philippines. In Iqaluit, he is employed with the Department of Justice as a Financial Reporting Analyst.

I first met Ann-Ann Aguilar at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit museum where she works in customer service. You guessed it she also has a part-time job as an elementary school teacher. She arrived in 1999 and lives with her handsome little man Raphael and husband Ryan Aguilar, who is employed at the hospital.

“It helps to have family here,” said Russel Dulos. He was sponsored by his sister Naty from Dumangas, Iloilo who has lived in the city since 1997. Russel works at the Nunavut Arctic College, looking after Student Housing.

For those who came much earlier, like Marcelo Perungao, the transition was much tougher. He may be one of the first to arrive in 1989. There was no Filipino community to support him and there was no Wi-Fi then. His family has remained in BC and visits them as much as he can. With Skype and Wi-Fi now available, social media has made it much easier to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. Alita Marriott is another pioneer who arrived in 1994 and is passionate about her work as a daycare staff for babies and at the group homes for youth.

I have also met health care professionals like Aileen Austria who is employed as a nurse at the hospital. Her husband Ernie Austria also a nurse in the Philippines, works for a mental health facility. Aileen said that in 2 weeks, she can earn an equivalent of 1-year salary in the Philippines. Tina Ticao an alumni of St. Paul’s College in Iloilo, was a medical doctor. She then studied nursing as the journey to have a nursing credential recognized in Canada is shorter and less daunting than a medical degree. She found a job in Calgary advertised in the Nursing Journal. She later made a decision to move to Iqaluit for better opportunities. I briefly met Laudeline Atienza, a nurse recruiter for the Department of Health and her husband, Roland who is employed with the Government of Nunavut as a payroll officer for the past 11 years. They were getting ready to leave for their one-month vacation in the Philippines and kindly gave me a ride back to the hotel.

On my way to the airport, I was reminded of the kindness and the warm welcome I received from our kababayans especially Judy, who work hard to support their families in Canada and the Philippines. The way they support each other to ease the loneliness and the climate/culture shock of living in the Arctic region made me proud of my Filipino heritage. It certainly helped me forget I was 7000 km north of the equator, which is the closest I will ever be to the North pole.

As I handed my passport to First Air ticket agent, Agnes Bernardo who has lived in Iqaluit for 9 years, she didn’t hesitate to say to me, a stranger, “Come back in the Summer, I will take you fishing”.

Marjorie Soldevilla is a Senior Program Development Officer (Manitoba and the Territories) with Employment and Social Development Canada-Service Canada.