Calgary·Filipino Bureau

How Filipino heritage thrives in a small Alberta town

A vibrant and deep-rooted Filipino community has established itself in the northern hamlet of Lac La Biche.

'I feel for myself that I will grow old here in Lac La Biche. I am home,' says long-time resident

John Salazar moved to Lac La Biche in 2019 after spending 18 years in Calgary and was surprised to find a deep-rooted and welcoming community of Filipinos in the tiny town. (Submitted by John Salazar)

There's a tradition in Filipino culture where, if someone gives you a container of food, you're not supposed to return it empty. You fill it with new food as a thank you before giving it back. 

"I have never eaten so much Filipino food in my life since moving to Canada," said John Salazar.

Salazar immigrated from the Philippines to Calgary in 2001, and then, in 2019, moved north to Lac La Biche, Alta.

It was there, to his surprise, that he found a vibrant and tightly-knit Filipino community, ready to share a meal and a sense of connection.

Reconnecting to heritage and karaoke

The hamlet of Lac La Biche is home to about 2,300 people, surrounded by panoramic lake views and vast stretches of farmland, about halfway between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. 

From the moment Salazar arrived, he says he knew the small town was going to win him over. 

"When I first came here in my first week just visiting, there was a Filipino aisle at the grocery store. That's how I knew that I was going to fall in love with this community." 

The 'Filipino Foods' aisle at the Lac La Biche IGA. (John Salazar)

Today, Salazar says living in Lac La Biche has helped him reconnect with his Filipino heritage, and it reminds him in so many ways of his early years in Manila.

"Growing up in my childhood, I remember going to a friend's house every day, or having a street party, or having a big group of neighbours just hang out, eat, sing karaoke. I never really saw that in Calgary," he said.

"You saw that every day, every night, every weekend in Lac La Biche. You go out into the dog park and you will see a traditional Filipino get-together. And you would go to just any street and you can hear people singing karaoke on the street," he said.

"This is literally the Filipino heritage alive in the deep depths of rural Alberta," he said.

So how did such a vibrant and tight-knit community emerge in the remote community?

Early arrivals were nurses

No one is exactly sure when the first Filipinos arrived in Lac La Biche, but it was at least as early as 1965.

On Aug. 26, 1967, the Lac La Biche Herald published a front-page article with an image of three women from the "Commonwealth of the Philippines" who "came from outside Canada to assist in the art of nursing at [the local] St. Catherine's Hospital." 

One of them, Amelia Enojo, arrived in December 1965, according to the article.

The author of the piece, T.W. Pue, was a self-described "out-and-out liberal." He also was the paper's publisher.

Just 10 days before the article was published, on Aug. 16, 1967, Canada had announced a new, more objective "points system" for evaluating potential immigrants. It would reward education, training and skills, where previous programs had prioritized race or country of origin.

This front page photo from the local paper features, from left, Evelyn Villanueva, Magdalena Rodriguez and Amelia Enojo, three of the seven nurses at the local Lac La Biche hospital in 1967. (Lac La Biche Museum)

"Canada can only benefit by bringing to our country such wonderful new residents to our shores as the staff members of the St. Catherine's Hospital," Pue wrote.

"But there are jobs available for many more," he continued, "and our much-maligned Immigration Department needs new, more liberal direction if we are going to take the opportunity now of increasing our citizenry."

It took several decades, but the Filipino community in Lac La Biche did grow.

Statistics Canada census data shows 15 Filipinos living in the county in 2006, but that jumped to 50 by 2011. And by 2016 (latest available census data) there were 155 Filipinos living in the county.

Charisse Seguera Nicholls secured a job as a restaurant server in Lac La Biche, having left her home in Western Visayas in 2008.

Charisse Nicholls says her original plan was to leave Canada after two years and head to Dubai, but then she met her husband in 2009. (Submitted by Charisse Nicholls)

"There was a boom for temporary workers," Nicholls said of the year she arrived. 

"Because there was an oil boom, people just didn't really want the lower paying jobs. So the lower paying jobs went to temporary foreign workers," she said. 

Nicholls didn't plan to stay for more than two years. But then she met her husband in 2009, and she hasn't thought about leaving since. She even helped her brother and cousin move to Lac La Biche, where they still live today.

Nolan and Charisse Nicholls live in Lac La Biche with their two sons. (Submitted by Charisse Nicholls)

Over the years, Nicholls has watched the Filipino community blossom and grow, as more families reunite and people find things to love about the place.

"I think the main reason why there's such a big Filipino community here in Lac La Biche is that the original group of Filipinos that came here just found a niche, where they have a steady job, and a support system, and people and things that they're familiar with, and employers that are willing to work with and support them," she said. 

"I really don't see a point leaving or moving anywhere," Nicholls said. "Because it's like Hotel California — you came, but you never want to leave."

And she's not alone.

Finding 'home away from home'

Jocelyn Magbitang moved there in January 2009, just a few months after Nicholls. She says what surprised her most upon arrival was the warm, small-town spirit that greeted her.

"I can still remember how they were so welcoming, not just the Filipinos — even the Canadians here in Lac La Biche, the locals," she said.

"I walk on the street, and everybody's saying good morning and hi to me. I'm thinking, "Do I know them?" Because everybody's talking to me," she said.

Over the past decade and a half, Magbitang says, the Filipino community has welcomed others into their unique food and culture — reciprocating the small town hospitality that initially greeted her.

"The Filipino parties are not just for Filipinos. It's for everyone," Magbitang said. "You can just show up there, and you are going to have fun and get full with all the meals."

The mayor and his family have even attended a few of the annual Filipino Christmas parties, she said.

"It feels good in that sense that we are also recognized by the community."

The annual Paskong Pinoy, or Filipino Christmas party, draws big crowds each year in Lac La Biche, but it was cancelled in 2020 because of COVID-19. This is a photo from 2019. (Bebie Khoy-khoy Hortaleza/Facebook)

Magbitang said many of the Filipinos in the community initially worked as nannies, caregivers or construction workers, but they've since branched out into other professions.

And though the community has grown in number, it's still as tightly-knit as ever, she said.

"The Filipinos came from different parts of the Philippines, but the way they treat each other, they are like family.

"And because Lac La Biche is so small, they feel that they are home away from home, and that these are the people that they can count on."

At least, that's how Magbitang sees it.

"The thing is, I feel for myself that I will grow old here in Lac La Biche. I am home."

This photo from 2019 shows the large turnout at the annual Filipino Christmas party in Lac La Biche. (Bebie Khoy-khoy Hortaleza/Facebook)