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It's All History by Jon Malek

The First Filipinos in Canada, revisited

By Jon Malek

Listed as entering Canada from the United States was one “Philippino,” coming to work as a clerk in Quebec in 1924.

In my 16 March 2015 column, I wrote about “The First Filipinos in Canada.” There, I discussed the question of when the first documented Filipino arrived in Canada, which had previously been established as Marcial Aranas in 1934. In this earlier column, I discussed findings that suggested there might have been Filipino migrants in Canada from the U.S. as early as 1905. These migrants were listed under the category “Malay,” which at that time was often in reference to the ethno-cultural group, rather than nationality. Given the historical circumstances of American colonial relations in the Philippines at the turn of the century, and the practice of Asian migrants moving north to find work on Canada’s West Coast, I argued it was likely – though not for certain – that these were the first Filipino migrants in Canada.

This month, I write with more conclusive evidence that suggests Filipinos were, beyond a doubt, living in Canada earlier than 1934, and I would like to share this finding and its importance with you here. A few weeks ago, I attended a history conference at the University of Ottawa, where I presented some of my research on the Winnipeg Filipino community. I also took a couple of days to visit the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC), the nation’s archival depository. One must submit a request to view documents days, if not weeks, in advance of a visit to allow archivists time to retrieve and check the status of the documents. Unlike a library, where a visitor may peruse the holdings, all archival holdings are kept secure to maintain their condition. Thus, one does not know exactly what an archival holding will contain – some catalogues go into detail but, given the size of most archival holdings, this is not always possible.

One holding I had requested to see was on Immigration to Canada from the United States; I had come across this source through a search on “Filipino immigration,” and so I thought this was a briefing or other similar document on the topic. On the contrary, it turned out to be a leger of immigrants coming to Canada from the United States in the 1920s. I almost put the item away as soon as I realized what it was: an old, dusty, and massive book (about 3 feet by 2 feet) – but figured I’d take a look. The pages listed world nationalities, beside which were ticked numbers indicating how many came from the U.S. during a particular month. Other information included gender, area of occupation, and where in Canada they settled. Remembering what I had found about Malays in 1905, I began flipping through the pages; interested in the material I was seeing.

The reading room of the LAC is a wonderful place to be; filled with other researchers quietly searching for facts, and with wide windows perched over the wonderful river, one gets lost in their work. Thus, I nearly fell off my seat when I read a hand-written entry for a Filipino migrant.

Listed as entering Canada from the United States was one “Philippino,” coming to work as a clerk in Quebec. Who knows what this lone Filipino migrant was doing, who he travelled with, or what his plans (or dreams) were. This information is lost. We can confidently hypothesize, though, about the route this gentleman took. He was likely in his 20s or 30s, and likely had education as he was hired as a clerk. If he went through education in the Philippines, he likely attended a school or university established by the Americans; this was a common practice because Filipinos were wanted to work in the U.S., but the colonial American government wanted to ensure they attained an education equal to that in the U.S. Thus, many schools were established along an American model. The other possibility is that he moved to the U.S. for his education; these were known as pensionados. These qualified Filipino students were allowed by the Pensionado Act of 1903 ( to take college degrees within the United States until 1931 when it was repealed, amid domestic turmoil resulting from the Depression. Why this Filipino decided to move north to Canada is unclear; perhaps he found better work opportunities. Beyond this, though, we just can’t be certain.

So what does this tell us about Filipinos in Canada and about Canadian immigration during this time? Foremost, I think this type of information needs to be more widely known for, while one Filipino coming to Canada in 1924 may not re-write the history books, it does remind us that Canada was never a nation of three peoples: the Aboriginals, the French and the English. Chinese lived and worked along Canada’s West Coast in significant numbers well before the 1850s, challenging the numbers of Anglo-Saxon settlers when B.C. was established in 1858. South Asian and Japanese immigrants also lived in Canada much earlier than has been thought. And, as early as the 1920s and 1930s, there were Filipinos living in Canada. These Asian populations also lived with South and Eastern Europeans, as well as African-descended immigrants. Canada from its earliest days has relied on labour provided by migrants to survive and succeed. And being given citizenship has made the work these immigrants perform acts of civic duty, enriching and diversifying the dynamics of Canada’s citizenry.

Today, Filipinos are a major demographic segment of Canada’s population. Many are proud to call themselves Canadians and are proud of their Filipino heritage. It is not well known the depths of Canada’s relationship to the Philippines, but Filipinos living in Canada should be aware that, as early as 1924, their kababayan have been working to improve this country, and today Canada is better because of it.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.

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