Calgary·Filipino Bureau

Filipino Canadians navigate their identity

Vangie Caoile, a representative of the Calgary Filipino community, chats with CBC about how Canadians define national identity with a hyphen.

Is the Canadian identity defined by a 'hyphen' for those embracing two worlds?

Vangie Caoile is the chair for Fiesta Filipino, Alberta's largest Filipino organization. (Rodel Lozano)

For many Calgarians, they find themselves straddling two worlds — a hyphenated life, as an African-Canadian, or a Croatian-Canadian, or a Filipino-Canadian. 

As part of our Filipino popup bureau, CBC Calgary recently sat down with community leaders for an editorial board. One of those leaders was Vangie Caoile, a chair at Fiesta Filipino — one of Alberta's largest cultural festivals and Filipino organizations.

Caoile immigrated to Canada 23 years ago and has become a strong advocate for newcomers and immigrant families within Calgary. She is the CEO for Canada Advantage, a company helping international students bridge educational and employment opportunities in Canada.

During the discussion she raised the importance, in her mind, of adopting a hyphenated approach to life in Canada. It's something she believes goes far beyond semantics. We wanted to know more, and so CBC journalist Paul Karchut spoke with Caoile about what she meant by hyphenated identity.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CBC no longer routinely uses a hyphen in identifying groups, although it is common elsewhere in society. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Paul Karchut: It's so interesting, this hyphenated experience.… 

I love when you say that.… It's the hyphenated life. I've been so conscious about that. There must be something in you that allowed you to pack everything that you know of — your life, your family, everything, and then turn everything and move to an unknown country. 

There has to be a fundamental shift for you to embrace your present and your future, at the same time, and be empowered by your past. 

That's the hyphenated life. That you must be able to reconcile what it means to be Filipino in a Canadian setting. 

We put people in certain boxes and this is the concept that when you come to Canada, you have a certain concept of what is Canadian, and what is Filipino. 

And a lot of the people in our community would always put them(selves) in the box and they would always say, "You know … we are treated as second rate citizens." 

That's not the society dictating that. Because you accept that — you put yourself into that box. 

We need to create our own and give that definition. That's the only way that we will define that identity. 

What does it mean to have that hyphenated life? For you to take away the Filipino in me is like baking a cupcake half baked. It has to be a meeting of two cultures. And to me, that's very exciting. 

PK: You work closely with newcomers. You're an advocate for newcomers coming into Calgary. I'm wondering about what they say about adding Canadian to their identity. What significance does that have to people as they start a new life here? 

Right now, I have a list of about 60 families that I'll be connecting to. They are newcomers from all over. So, most of the feedback that I get … I think it set them in the right perspective. 

It just sets you into a right mindset that, "Oh, I am accepted here and it's OK. It's OK for me to continue to practise the positive things that I know, and adjust to the Canadian society because I will be accepted."

And I find that when you start with that, they become more productive, they become more engaged, they become proactive. Then they become empowered, they become emboldened, empowered to say, "It's OK if your English is not good. Nobody really cares here."

They're fine! And then that emboldens them. It empowers them to reach out to not just within our community, but even outside our community. It helps them get the right mindset. 

PK: Have you seen a generational shift in this? Are younger Calgarians less likely to use the hyphen?

I think there's also a shift for young Canadians — Filipino Canadians — into finding identity.

I find that we lost one generation. Ninety to 95 per cent of our children, of our offspring do not have a very dynamic community in the past. Which we now have. And that's triggering the shift in the consciousness.

I see a shift. It's a very slow paradigm shift, but I see changing. 

But (the) second generation — I'm finding them to be going back. Going back into the community fold and and exploring more and understanding more. And it just gives you that full identity appreciation, I guess. You don't need to embrace it, but you appreciate what it means to have the colour, to have that DNA. So that's what it is. 

PK: Is there a point where you drop the hyphen? Is that ever something that happens in your life or is it with you forever? 

I think that's always been in my subconscious. I've been very conscious of what I represent. 

I have my Filipino heritage, and I would always bring that forward. And I say that to everybody, I don't think just a Filipino trait. Even my Ukrainian friends or, you know, it's not just Filipino.

It's just that in our community, we are very insular. We congregate among ourselves because we feel safe that way. 

But there's that opportunity to share that story outside and be proud of it. But we find that when these leaders are confronted with mainstream settings, they tend to withdraw. 

Vangie Caoile leads a Fiesta Filipino volunteer orientation for the organization's annual festival. (Mon Felix Ponciano)

I think the reason being is because of that 300 years of occupation by Spain, it has been embedded into our DNA that we are just followers. 

When other communities come on board, we tend to be safe. We were taught to sit at the back of the room. We were taught that it's rude to always be putting your hands up.

We put so much emphasis on humility, on being just silent — let your work do the talking.

That's the Filipino mentality.

PK: You talk about how, at times, the community has been insular. Do you feel like that tiny little dash, that little hyphen, is playing a big role in changing people's mindsets around that insular quality? 

Yes, I really, really, really think so. 

Yes, because given the right tool and the right script and the right medium, we can maximize our potential because we will no longer be viewed as good workers. We will not just be nannies or temporary foreign workers. 

That it will inspire my community to be leaders in the truest sense of the word. That our voices will translate to my children having that equal opportunity, just like everyone. Because I find that the glass ceiling is not just set by the system, it's set by our mental capacity. It's set by within our own, I don't know, psychology, I guess. 

Which should no longer be applicable when you become a Filipino-Canadian. 


Paul Karchut

CBC Calgary

Paul is the host of Daybreak Alberta, heard across the province every weekend. He's been with CBC since 2005, twelve years of which were spent as the director of the Calgary Eyeopener. You've also heard his national car column, Karchut on Cars, on morning shows across the country for years. Join Paul weekend mornings across Alberta from 6-9.