Manitoba

First wave of Filipino immigrants mark 50 years in Winnipeg

Five decades after coming to work in Winnipeg’s garment industry, those who can count themselves among the first wave of the city’s Filipino community gathered to mark the anniversary this weekend.

More than 1,200 Filipinos came to work in Winnipeg through '60s recruitment program

The Philippine Garment Workers marked 50 years in Winnipeg at a gala Saturday night. The group's president, Armand Tesoro, called it a family reunion. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Five decades after coming to work in Winnipeg's garment industry, those who can count themselves among the first wave of the city's Filipino community gathered to mark the anniversary this weekend.

The Philippine Garment Workers marked 50 years in Winnipeg at a gala Saturday night.

"It's very important, because it was job creating and it's helping all Filipinos because in the Philippines there's not too many jobs there," explained Armand Tesoro, president of the Philippine Garment Workers. He helped organize the event. 

"In return, what we showed to Winnipeg and Canada is that we have strong family ties, hard work, honesty and friendliness."

Tesoro, now 75, arrived from the Philippines in 1969, a few months after his sweetheart Erlinda flew to Winnipeg in October 1968.

Erlinda, who married Armand soon after his arrival, was among the first 30 Filipino workers to come to Winnipeg through a federal program that brought skilled workers to the city from the Philippines to work in the then booming garment industry.

Erlinda Tesoro, 74, came to Winnipeg with the first group of Filipino workers in October 1968. (Travis Golby/CBC)

She still remembers getting off the plane and seeing the city for the first time.

"There was snow on the leaves on the trees," Elinda Tosoro said. "I didn't know what was going to happen to me."

Through the program Erlinda and the new workers were given a paid flight to Winnipeg, a place to live and $125 to get their new lives started. They were each given a two-year contract and the chance to eventually become Canadian citizens.

They also earned $1.25 an hour to start.

"Over there it was a very low wage and coming here it was a lot of money," explained Danny Sevilla, who came to Winnipeg with the third group to arrive later in October 1968.

Sevilla started working in the cutting room at Canadian Shirts and Overall and after working at several other factories over the years, is the last remaining worker to come through the program remaining in the industry today.

At 71, Sevilla works as a sample maker at the Canada Goose factory.

"I'm still working and I love it," he laughed. "It's my passion, I work, work, work, eight hours a day."

Danny Sevilla, 71, is the last member of the first wave still working in the industry. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Like many of the other workers, Sevilla and the Tesoros saved money and sent what they could back to their families in the Philippines.

By the time the recruitment program ended in 1972, a little more than 1,200 Filipino workers had come to Winnipeg and many helped to sponsor their friends and family to come here too.

They were as close as family, remembers Armand.

"Everybody was brothers and sisters," he said. "Every birthday, anniversaries, et cetera, we always celebrate every time.

"When you'd walk to a little apartment you can see a lot of shoes on the door — we were just crowded in there — but it didn't matter, we were a happy group."

It's why Philippine Garment Workers was formed back in 1992.

The group organized a party to mark the 25th anniversary of the first wave of Filipino garment workers arriving in Winnipeg in 1993.

Since then, they've been holding local reunions for those still living in Winnipeg once a year, and a bigger affair every five years when those who have moved to different Canadian cities fly in for the occasion.

Around 250 were expected to attend Saturday's event at Canad Inns Polo Park, with roughly 20 people flying in from cities across the country and as far as California.

"It's very important to get back together because we can reminisce [about] the past, because most of us, now, have a better life than when we first came," explained Armand.

"This is more like a family reunion."

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