A New Beginning: Filipino Heritage in Toronto

[Isang Bagong Simulain: Pamanang Pilipino sa Toronto]

Written by Tyson Brown

Filipino Nurses in Toronto. MHSO Collection, FIL-007

Many of them arrived by train from the United States. Some were alone, others came with family members. All of them knew very little about the city. This describes the situation for the first wave of Filipino migrants to Toronto, a group of women who worked in the healthcare field in the United States and who decided to come to Canada when their American work visas expired. They had heard about a growing city in the north with plenty of work opportunities in their chosen profession and they decided they would give it a try. This was during the 1960s, a period of rapid development for Toronto and the early, formative stages of the cultural mosaic that is Toronto today. When they first arrived, these Filipino women may have felt like foreigners, but they soon laid the foundations for a large and vibrant Toronto Filipino Community.

Major political changes in the Philippines, international events and new immigration policies for Canada all contributed to the possibility and desirability of emigration. The Philippines are an archipelago consisting of over 81 provinces and 17 regions representing a rich and diverse number of dialects and ethnic cultures. By the 19th century, it had become engulfed in global power struggles stemming from European and American imperialism.  At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the Treaty of Paris (1898) ceded the Philippines to the United States and thus began a century of political and economic instability. The effects of the two World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and eventually a military coup in the 1980s created the conditions that pushed many Filipinos to leave their homeland. At one point, the government of the Philippines encouraged emigration.

English was taught in school, used in state affairs and in business.  Many Filipinos had received a high quality of education, and along with their English language skills, this made them well-equipped to live and work abroad. Some of them moved to Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East, and then eventually made their way to North America.

In the 1960s, a strong American presence in the Philippines, and the American Philippines Exchange Program gave many Filipino women with specialized training in the healthcare industry the ability to obtain visas to work in the US. After their initial work permits expired, some of these women wanted to remain in North America and chose to migrate to Toronto where they could find work and obtain landed immigrant status.

Prior to the arrival of these healthcare workers in Toronto, it is difficult to determine the number of Filipinos living in the city. People from the Philippines were then officially classified simply as ‘Asian’. As the healthcare workers began to arrive in Toronto, however, changes to Canadian immigration laws were under way that would open the doors for more migration from beyond Europe, and for many more people to come to Toronto directly from the Philippines. Canada required a larger workforce, including those with specialized skills in healthcare.

Filipino healthcare workers found work in rapidly expanding hospitals in Toronto. Along with places of employment, centres of faith would have a major impact on the growth of the community and its settlement pattern. Parkdale and St. James Town are two primary examples. In Parkdale, the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church on King Street West, east of Jameson Street, was originally built in 1902. When Filipino women found employment at St. Joseph’s Hospital near Roncesvalles Avenue, they started to attend this church and settle in the local neighbourhood. In St. James Town, Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church was built in 1879 on Sherbourne Street, just south of Bloor Street.  Many of the 19th century homes in the area of the church were demolished in the post-war period to be replaced with the high-rise apartment buildings that now define St. James Town. Here, Filipino women found work at the nearby Wellesley Hospital (since closed and demolished), housing in the new apartment buildings, and a centre of faith at Our Lady of Lourdes.

“Queen Helena and Prince Constantine”, Santacrusan Procession, Toronto, 1982. MHSO Collection, FIL-0014-P

St. James Town, in particular, evolved into a cultural hub of the Filipino community of Toronto. It was here, in Our Lady of Lourdes, that a group of Filipino women came together to form the Filipino Christian Workers Group.  They did so in response to the increasing number of Filipinos arriving in Toronto, many of whom were in need of help with housing, employment, day-care, support for seniors, and language training. To meet those needs, the Christian Workers group eventually established the Silayan Community Centre in 1971, which was incorporated in July 1979 as the Silayan Filipino Community Centre, a place that would serve as the nucleus of the Filipino community for decades.

By the 1980s, major changes in the Philippines, especially the declaration of martial law by the military, would create massive emigration from the region. The Filipino Diaspora, including the community in Toronto, was closely tied to these events.  It was not uncommon to find protests against events in the Philippines on the streets of Toronto.

Along with unrest in their homeland, Filipinos in Toronto faced obstacles in their new society. Many arrived in Toronto well-educated and with specialized skills, yet the education and training they received back in the Philippines was not recognized here in Canada. Unable to work in their specialized field, they were forced to accept other, often unspecialized work, or to accept the expense and loss of income of a return to school.

Flores De Mayo celebrations, Holy Cross Church on Cosburn Street, Toronto, 1985. MHSO Collection, FIL-0001

Since the 1980s, it has been a common sight in some neighbourhoods to see Filipino women taking care of the children of others. These caregivers are often hired under a specific contract, with the option of remaining in Canada when that contract expires. Despite the important role they have played in helping some families with their children, many Filipino caregivers have faced poor working conditions and low wages. The story of how Filipino caregivers have pushed for legislative changes to make their experiences safer and more secure is a primary example of how new Torontonians have helped make our city a more equitable place for everyone.

Today, the Filipino community is approaching a fifty year presence in Toronto. From the 1960s wave of healthcare workers, to those who have made Toronto their home since, the story of Torontonians of Filipino descent is one of perseverance, determination, and the importance of family and cultural bonds. With those of others, their story goes hand in hand with the reconstruction of Toronto’s own identity as an international centre of cultural diversity in the second half of the 20th century.


Anita Beltra Chen, From Sunbelt to Snowbelt: Filipinos in Canada, (Canadian Ethnic Studies Association, 1998)
Rosalina Bustamente, ‘A Growing Community in Fast Growing City’ Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1984), pg. 168-171.
Rosalina Bustamente, ‘Filipino Ethnic Newspapers in Metropolitan Toronto’, Polyphony: Press, Vol. 4, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1982), pg. 74-76.
Rosalina, Bustamente, ‘Filipino Women and Equality’, Polyphony: Women and Ethnicity, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1986), pg. 77-79.
Robert Cusipeg, Portrait of Filipino Canadians in Ontario: 1960-1990, (Kalayan Media, 1993).
Phillip Kelly, ‘Filipinos in Canada: Economic Dimensions of Immigration and Settlement’, Retrieved from: http://www.ceris.metropolis.net/wp-content/uploads/pdf/research_publication/working_papers/wp48.pdf

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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