Paul Wilson: After the fire, the Filipinos come home

It's no Little Manila, but downtown Hamilton does have a tiny pocket of Filipinos on King East. A fire last month disrupted their lives. Now they're looking for a fresh start.
The sign light is on, but it will be awhile before the local Filipino community can get their purple yam jam here on King East. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

A couple of months ago, Stephen Harper became the first Canadian prime minister in 15 years to visit the Philippines. You could say his trip was overdue, now that the Philippines is the number one source of immigrants to Canada, edging out China and India.

Most immigrants to this country have higher unemployment rates than the general population. Not so with the Filipinos. They have carved themselves a strong niche in the "caring" industry. There are now some 500,000 in Canada.

Just one per cent of that number, about 5,000, live in Hamilton and area. We have no Filipino-town, no Little Manila.

But downtown, King East between Wellington and Victoria, a quiet enclave makes its way in the new land. There is just one clue to who lives here – a small shop called Filipino Take-Out & Grocery.

The light on the store’s sign shines through the night. But inside, the store has been dark of late, the shelves empty.

On Dec. 14 fire broke out at 405 King Street East, in the basement of a coin shop. There may have been some hoarding activity there, and the Hamilton Fire Department says the investigation is still underway.

That building has now been knocked down. And the people in the big century-old brick homes on either side were evacuated. The city deemed them unsafe, at least temporarily.

But this week the city unlocked the doors at No. 401 and residents were allowed to return to look around. They hope to make it permanent soon.

"You get discouraged, but you have to move on," says Gemma Ash. "When you have children, you have to show them that’s how it works." She and her husband and the kids, 12 and 8, have been boarding with her brother on the Mountain. It’s crowded.

Gemma runs the Filipino shop. She says it will be months before she gets her little kitchen going again, where she prepares egg rolls, pork stew and other take-out items. There are the exotic groceries too – the pickled papaya, anchovy sauce, sweet banana in syrup, jackfruit, purple yam jam.

Gemma’s mother, Ester Biglete, owns No. 401, and No. 403 next door, which is more badly damaged. It’s not certain yet whether that house will come down. About two dozen from the Filipino community lived in these homes and the lucky ones will be able to move back in.

Ester, the matriarch, came to Canada nearly 30 years ago as a nanny. She worked hard, more than one job. "I never took a day off," she says. "I had five kids to bring over."

She has done that and they have their own families and homes now. But Ester has also helped others from the Philippines get a start here.

One is Jerrald Banacia, now taking his first look in a month at the apartment he rents at the back of Ester’s house.

All is in place, including the Christmas tree he didn’t get to see on Dec. 25. He says it went up in November. "Christmas means a lot to us back home."

He arrived in Canada 15 months ago and is a dental technician. He has been bunking in with other Filipinos, many who work as personal support workers. "At Christmas, we were together and tried to shake off the stress.

"It’s been hard to go to work," he says, "but we do. "We lost our homes. We can’t lose our jobs too." | @PaulWilsonCBC 

You can read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.