Published on

It's All History by Jon Malek

Whither Little Manila?

by Jon Malek

In my research on Filipino and other communities in North America, I’ve always been struck by the prevalence of spaces associated with ethnic groups. Most well-known would be the Chinatowns across Canada and the United States, including in Winnipeg. Lesser known in the public eye, but still there, are so-called “Filipino Towns,” “Little Manilas,” or even “Pinoytowns,” communities in which thrive Filipino restaurants, grocery stores, churches, community centres, and other gathering places. In 2013, the late Dawn Bohulano Mabalon published Little Manila is in the Heart, which studied one such community in Stockton, California. The title was a play on the classic America is in the Heart, whose author, Carlos Bulosan, spent a lot of time in Stockton. Reading the book, and reflecting upon the number of Little Manilas in the United States or Canada (such as in Toronto and Vancouver), led me to wonder where is Winnipeg’s own Little Manila, and was there ever one?

In October 1981, Winnipeg’s first Filipino newspaper, the Silangan, reported it was moving to 453 Notre Dame Avenue, to the Amihan Building in the heart of what was called “Filipino Town.” In the early 1980s, the stretch of Notre Dame between Maryland and Hargrave was home to several Filipino businesses. The Amihan building housed the offices of the Silangan, the newly formed Barangay Filipino Association of Manitoba, the offices of PhilCraft Foods, and Dahl’s Portrait Studio. Other Filipino businesses along Notre Dame included PhilCraft Foods, Taal Travel, Garcia & Sons, Plaza Air Travel, Horizon Travel, Manila Mart, Couture House & Textiles, Ultraman Travel, and Bueno Bros. Just off Notre Dame, down Arlington Street, was St. Edward’s Church and Parish Hall, which saw the 1980 election of the Barangay Filipino Association of Manitoba that drew the largest number of Filipino voters at the time across Canada. Other businesses in this area, such as the TD Bank at Notre Dame and Sherbrook, catered to Filipino customers. Even today, the area of Winnipeg around this area is home to many Filipino businesses and families. Yet, the term “Filipino Town” never stuck.

The question of a Filipino Town or Little Manila touches upon several points. One is recognition. It is not a secret that Filipinos are the fastest growing group in Winnipeg, are becoming one of the city’s largest ethnic groups, and are active in all realms of public and business life. And yet, the broader recognition of this community and its spaces seem silent outside the Filipino community. A second point is inclusion. The Filipino community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and indeed Canada has yet to experience inclusion in historical narratives. Histories of the community are little known, both inside and outside of the community, and this can affect how members of the Filipino community feel Canadian, but also how much Canada appreciates the contributions of Philippine culture and heritage. The recognition of June as Philippine Heritage month is a meaningful step in that direction, but the spaces of this community still deserve recognition. The creation or recognition of a Filipino Town would give a degree of recognition by broader Canadian society.

The third, as I see it, is rootedness. One reason that Chinatowns have become common across Canada is that Chinese have been living in communities in Canada longer than Confederation in 1867. Filipinos, too, have been in Canada since at least the 1890s, but not in the same numbers as Chinese, and significant Filipino communities were later to develop. In the United States, there are several Little Manilas – such as Stockton – because Filipinos have been making communities there for over a century, as well. Yet, even if the Filipino community was formed in Winnipeg during the late 1950s and 1960s, it has still contributed much to Canadian society, as well as the city of Winnipeg. In the 1950s until 1967, any Filipino immigrants to Canada had to be given special permission to enter the country as Canadian immigration laws explicitly forbade entrance to anyone of Asian descent. Despite this, Filipino healthcare workers staffed Winnipeg hospitals. These immigrants should be credited with helping shift Canada’s immigration policy away from its hostile and racist restriction to all Asian ethnicities. These particular workers also helped Canada transition into a new age of healthcare that developed following the Second World War, and the introduction of Canadian universal healthcare in 1957. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was garment workers recruited from the Philippines that kept Winnipeg’s struggling garment industry active as its growth could not keep pace with the labour supply in Manitoba. In its more than sixty years, the Winnipeg (and Manitoba) Filipino community has contributed so much to society that it is, indeed, rooted in society but is only starting to receive recognition.

The recognition of a Filipino Town in Winnipeg will thus have to happen on at least two fronts. First, it must come from the community. There must be discussions about the community’s history and development, sites and neighbourhoods that have been integral in those developments, and spaces within which members of the community feel are distinctly Filipino in some way. For decades, for example, the Philippine Independence Day Ball has been hosted at the Marlborough Hotel and has brought together diverse members of the community. The Philippine Cultural Centre of Manitoba has also become a site of Filipino business, and has hosted countless Filipino birthdays, socials, and other events. One might also point to certain Winnipeg neighbourhoods, such as Weston, Maples, stretches of Notre Dame or Keewatin; recently, I’ve even seen chatter of “McPhilippines” along McPhillips Street as more and more Filipino businesses have opened up.

This, however, is one aspect. The second front of change must come from broader society in the form of support from different levels of government. Winnipeg has a tradition of protecting historical sites through its Heritage Conservation under its Planning, Property, and Development office. There are limits to this recognition, as buildings will not be considered for heritage status unless they are at least forty years old. The various levels of government have demonstrated their willingness and desire to work with Filipino communities across Canada, and perhaps at a municipal level this can be advanced by advertising areas of the city as Filipino Town.

This does not seem to be a lofty or unattainable goal, but it is one that will require community organization and consultation, as well as communication with the government. It is high time that Winnipeg’s Filipino community and its neighbourhoods attain recognition.

Congratulations to the Philippines as Filipinos around the world celebrate the 123rd anniversary of Independence!

Do you have memories of this time in Winnipeg’s history? Do you remember shopping or eating in what was once called Filipino Town? I’d love to hear your stories or your thoughts on this column! I can be reached at

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.