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Canada’s “space” is sweet release

Editors note: the following article appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 3, 2012. It is reproduced here with permission.

It goes without saying my family did not come to Manitoba for the weather. It came for the “space.”

Coming from a Third World country where every inch of sidewalk is filled with warm bodies, pedestrians popping out of nowhere to cross the streets, crowds of anxious commuters swarming over approaching buses and jeepneys, the space Canada offers is sweet release.

According to Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, if there are more and more people dividing up the proverbial resource pie, each will end up with a very tiny slice.

Canada is a vast country, rich in natural resources, yet with only 33.5 million people, according to the 2011 census. The Philippines, in contrast, is a tiny country of 88 million people, of which 11.5 million are cramped into Metro Manila alone.

There is so much room to grow in Canada, not only in terms of physical space, but the quality of air, health care, and most of all, a bigger slice of hope for a brighter tomorrow.

So in 1997, after selling all we had and spending all of our savings to pay the fees to come here, I packed my bags and said goodbye to my family, friends, and homeland. With my two little kids in tow and luggage full to the brim, we headed to Winnipeg. Waiting for us was my husband, Johnny, who had left a month earlier to scout the land, find a job and an apartment.

“I cannot begin to imagine how you can leave your country, your family, and pretty much everything behind to come here,” is a comment I hear often.

Leave pretty much everything behind is true – with a baggage limit of two per person, 50 pounds apiece, how much of your culture can you squeeze in? Some immigrants bring items associated with their profession such as their nursing uniform. Others bring photographs or personal mementoes. I brought my cast-iron kaldero, our very first rice pot as husband and wife. It is a three-cup, very-heavy, nothing-fancy but reliable pot, just the right size for a young family back then.

In addition to our luggage, we brought our skills, our work ethic, our values that set us apart as Filipinos.

My husband and I were instructors at the University of the Philippines. We both have masters’ degrees in management and environmental sciences, respectively. Prior to that, he finished a bachelor of science in agricultural engineering, and I in biology.

Though English is the second language in the Philippines and the medium of instruction in schools and universities, English wasn’t our language of comfort. To this day, Tagalog, or Tag-lish (Tagalog-English mix), is our language of comfort.

Long johns, toque, parka and yellow snow – these were some of the strange new words I learned when I first arrived. They were not Canadian desserts, as I realized later. They were essential to being “winterized” – uncharted waters for someone from a tropical country with two seasons, hot and hotter. Being able to laugh at ourselves kept our sanity in this strange and frigid land.

For the first two years, I trembled whenever the phone rang – it could be one of the hundreds of places where we have applied for jobs. Answering in straight English could be intimidating. Like many other new immigrants, we couldn’t find jobs. Our stack of rejection letters grew by the inch monthly. We could not even get work cleaning tables due to our lack of “Canadian experience.” We both worked late shifts on assembly lines at various factories, to make ends meet.

I also found myself volunteering, working without pay to build up Canadian experience. I volunteered at the provincial Fisheries Branch, spreading the word to the new immigrants about the rules to harvest fish, and ended up with a short-term paying job.

It led to another contract job at the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, helping to spread the word on ocean conservation to the Inuit communities in the Arctic.

How does a science teacher from a country near the equator make the transition to designing communications materials for Inuit in the high arctic?

What did I know about the Inuit? I started with nothing. Hours of research in libraries, consulting scientists who worked in the Arctic, conducting interviews in Inuvik, Iqaluit and Yellowknife, studying Inuit lifestyle and respecting their traditions, even enduring extreme wind chill values, must have paid off.

Somehow the research skills from my past life were transferable. Two years of working for the federal government opened a new world of possibilities.

After the budget for my project ran out, Johnny also found himself being laid off. Both of us without jobs, with two little children, what were we to do? Those challenging moments became fertile ground for self discovery. With the help of unemployment insurance, Johnny took courses in computer programming, and I in communications and public relations – both drastically different from our previous training, but definitely new areas of interest.

Undeterred by the hoops and hurdles, we adapted, we improvised, we made do with less with and the best of what we had.

Despite our humble beginnings, the struggle to make a living, the frustration of not having our credentials recognized, we rise each day to reinvent ourselves. And with God’s grace and help, we emerge as shining beacons in our own little corners.

We hope to become one of the many pillars that help make this True North strong and free.

Amalia Pempengco works for the National Research Council of Canada in Winnipeg as executive assistant to the director general and is its diversity ambassador. She is a writer for the newsmagazine, Pilipino Express. For nine years, she has been a Canadian Blood Services volunteer, encouraging other Filipinos to give back to Canada by giving blood.