In Toronto's Little Manila this weekend, barbecue, adobo and karaoke delight the throngs filling the city's Wilson Heights neighbourhood.

Last year, festival organizers say the event drew 350,000 visitors — about as many Filipino residents living and working here in Toronto.

Many of those residents came to Canada looking for "greener pastures," as festival host Carl Diaz, 31, put it. He landed in Aurora, Ont. six years ago through a foreign workers program to become a caregiver.

He's now living in Toronto, studying to become a registered nurse. While he's seeking citizenship next year, he says the Philippines is never far from his heart.

"It's overwhelming to be here and be connected with people," he said.

taste of manila

Toronto's Filipino community boasts nearly 350,000 residents, about half of those who identify as Filipino across the country. (CBC)

Congressman John Bertiz flew in from the Philippines for the festival, aiming to speak to overseas workers-turned-permanent residents like Diaz, wanting to remind them that the Filipino government has been working to make life better back home.

The country's foreign worker program allows Filipino nationals who want to work abroad to apply for sponsorship through agencies or from Canadian residents. Workers often come to Canada on short-term permits.

For Diaz, it offered the first step into a new country, a place he eventually wanted to call home. 

Life in the Philippines 'not hopeless'

Bertiz explained the overseas foreign workers program was created to combat crime in the country and suggested the program has done its job. "The change is already here," Bertiz said.

He says investment in the country has improved, which could encourage foreign workers to return home.

"Life in the Philippines is not hopeless," fellow congressman Anthony Bravo added. Free college education, he said, means that Filipino citizens no longer need to leave the country to earn a degree. 

"For the few days that we were here, we were able to mingle...and find out the concerns they want to convey to our president," he said. 

taste of manila

Food and entertainment rules at the festival, which bills itself the 'largest Filipino festival outside the Philippines.' (CBC)

Diaz might not be swayed. Even though he misses the nuances of Filipino culture — including deserts such as halo halo, a dish comprising tender fruit tossed with condensed milk and shaved ice — he has no plans to leave Canada, which he says welcomed him warmly as a newcomer.

But the festival, for Diaz, is a relief, a lifeline to his homeland and a reminder of all the people and places he misses.

Swallowed up in familiar crowds, tastes and sounds makes him emotional, he said, noting that his family still lives in Siacon, the town where Diaz grew up. But the ache for home is sweetened by the sense of community he's found here.

"We're celebrating our own culture, our presence in Canada," he said. "And who can forget the food?"