Like good parents the world over, Rudy and Vina Bueno wanted a better life for their kids. It's not that life was bad in the Philippines, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Rudy had a good job as president of a company, their three kids were healthy and thriving, they had a comfortable home. Any move abroad would set them back initially, not ahead.
Still, they wanted something ... more.
Thousands of miles away from his homeland, Rudy searches for the words to explain why they left. Simply put, they were thinking about their kids: securing a more stable future, the chance at countless opportunities, the certain knowledge that they had done everything possible to give them the world.
Rudy looks out at the nearby playground at Whistler Olympic Plaza, where kids are whooping and hollering down the slide, running through the tree fort, groups of heads bent together hatching plans for another mission of fun. He points to the small toddlers, exploring the world with those early uncertain steps.
That would never happen in the Philippines, he says with an almost wistful smile. The kids would never toddle around by themselves; their mother or their nanny would always be standing right beside them to make sure they didn't fall down.
A subtle difference about finding independence that Rudy sees first hand now in his own children, who have spent their formative teenage years bridging the cultural gap of two worlds.
Now, they want to move out of the family home and get places of their own. In the Philippines you just don't do that; you live with your parents until you get married.
It's not that Rudy yearns for how things are done back home. Rather, the opposite. One of the reasons they moved was to give their kids independence.
"I asked my daughter 'should we go?'" recalls Rudy of a conversation with his daughter Angela back in the Philippines. "And she told me 'if we don't try, we won't know.' That's the thing that made me decide to come here."
The Buenos have been living in Whistler for the past six years.
They are part of not only a burgeoning community of Filipinos, but also other immigrants from across the globe, coming not to ski and bike for a season or two but to settle, to forge roots, to find that better life, to call Whistler home.
• • •
When the Buenos arrived in Canada it was the spring of 2005. They were living with an old high school friend of Rudy's in Surrey, getting by. Rudy was a night auditor at a hotel. A few months later he noticed a posting from Whistler Blackcomb for a business development analyst. That was more in line with his employment background. The family of five travelled en masse to Whistler for Rudy's interviews.
And like so many before them, Whistler snagged their hearts.
"My kids would tell me 'you really have to get the job because we want to live here.' That's the kind of pressure they put on me," laughs Rudy.
He got the job. In October they moved to the mountains.
And like most overseas Filipinos, the Buenos looked for the Roman Catholic Church before anything else.
There, at Our Lady of the Mountains, particularly on a Saturday night, they discovered they weren't alone.
"It's the religion that binds them together," explains Bueno of the Catholic faith, which is the predominant religion in the Philippines with 80 per cent of the population belonging to the faith.
"That's where you start to have a community of your own. The community is very, very helpful. It is a tradition in our culture to ask to help people who are newcomers.
To the Buenos it was as though they had stumbled upon "a big family" living in the mountains. They found a community of people who spoke Tagalog (Filipino). They found people who shared the same cultural values. They found friends willing to help in hard times and to share the good times too like birthdays and baptisms.
In some ways, says Rudy, it's easier living here than in the melting pot of big cities — easier to maintain the culture and customs of home while melding in with the larger community.
A snapshot of the 2006 Census — the most up to date information on population diversity in B.C. communities — shows Filipino as one of the largest visible minority groups in Whistler, second only to Japanese.
That Census records 145 Filipinos.
While the 2011 population diversity numbers will not be released until next year, Rudy knows that number has changed significantly in recent years.
He estimates the Filipino community has blossomed in a few short years to about 450 people.
The influx in part came from a big push at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler in the lead up to the 2010 Olympic Games.
A couple of years before the Games, Whistler, like other places across B.C. was facing a labour shortage.
The Canadian government relaxed the rules to make it easier for hotels to hire for the lower skilled positions such as housekeeping, stewarding and services.
"There's usually people in Canada who are able to do those jobs but because of the labour shortage, they were allowing us to go out and actually hire foreign workers," said Tracy Torrell, assistant director of human resources at the Fairmont.
In the Spring of 2007, the Fairmont partnered with an agency in the Philippines and brought in 54 workers of Filipino descent, 75 workers in total from around the world.
Many of the Filipino workers had been working in Dubai or on cruise ships prior.
"They already have the experience that we're looking for in terms of having that engaging service and understanding what excellent guest service is. So you get people who are very committed to quality, which is obviously what the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Fairmont hotels is all about," said Torrell.
That success prompted the Fairmont to go after a second wave of foreign workers in 2008. Thirty-six in total came from other countries, the majority again from the Philippines.
Everyone understood at the time that they were coming on a two-year work permit and then returning home.
"But in the meantime, the Canadian government had come up with a temporary pilot project for the B.C. Provincial Nominee Program and that's when the permanent residency came into play," said Torrell.
"It was an opportunity that we just couldn't pass up because we had these great colleagues who were working for us, who wanted to remain in Canada and by us helping and supporting their process through the BC PNP, that then somewhat fast tracks you for your permanent residency application."
The Fairmont has helped with 98 applications. There are four left to be approved at this point. But that means 94 people have become permanent residents through the hotel. Torrell estimates that about 85 are Filipino.
If Whistler didn't know about this quiet, tight-knit, hard-working pocket of immigrants, it certainly does after this past weekend when the Filipino community came out en masse for the second annual Intercultural Festival.
"The Filipinos love to show off their culture and this is an opportunity for us as a community to really tell Whistler we are here and we're helping not only the Filipino community but the community as a whole," says Rudy.
Standing in a circle, sheltered from the rain, six young Filipinos can't wipe the smiles from their faces after taking to Main Street to show Whistler one of the traditional dances of the Ifugao province.
Around them thousands braved the rain to take in a slice of world culture — from the food stands lining Main Street, to the traditional dancers, to the Japanese calligraphy and even rolling maple syrup lollipops.
The Filipinos however are a stand-out presence.
Regine Cervantes was thrilled to show off the dancing and the traditional garb at the second annual festival.
"It was a really nice experience for people to see our culture," says an exuberant Cervantes, in her brightly woven skirt.
Regine and her sister Rachel have been in Whistler for three years. Their mom came first, working as a nanny. After she got her permanent residency, the girls followed. It's a familiar story.
The dance, they explained, is performed during special occasions like weddings and baptisms. The clay pots that they carry on their heads during the dance are a symbol of how they live their daily lives in Ifguao province.
"If you say 'show me Canadian culture,' this would be it," says Cervantes, motioning to the mini international expo unfolding on Main Street.
For Aki Mikami of Japan, the festival is a way to connect with other cultures and show off a little part of her own too.
Mikami has been living in Whistler for five years.
As she painted broad black brushstrokes of traditional Japanese calligraphy on white paper, Mikami says the festival is "an awesome experience."
Showcasing cultures like this is one of the reasons why William Roberts dreamt up the festival in the wake of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games and its celebration of the global community.
Like last year, the second annual festival was pulled together on a shoestring budget for under $20,000. The bulk of the funding came from the federal government.
"I just feel so satisfied and thrilled," said Roberts, looking around at the crowd. "Satisfied we were able to pull an event together that's successful, despite the rain. But thrilled that we continue to push the envelope on what it means to live in Canada with different cultures and different people and how to really share that in creative new ways and that to me is what Whistler should be about."
He's hoping he can prove its worth even more to the municipality with more funding in the future.
This year the municipality kicked in $5,000. That's up over last year but less than Roberts asked for from council.
Taking a break from the soccer game at the end of Main Street, Councillor Jack Crompton says the investment is "well worth it."
"I love all of our sports-related events and festivals. They're so big," he says. "For me, this adds something we don't have.
"It's a wonderful event."
Whistler Mulitcultural Network
Statistics from the recent Membership Survey, done by the Whistler Chamber of Commerce, offer some clues to the make up of the Whistler workforce.
That survey asked Chamber members to confirm from which country, or countries, they hire their employees.
True, members still primarily hire from Canada, followed by Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand, says president Fiona Famulak.
But they are also hiring from the Czech Republic, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, Germany, South Africa, Sweden and Mexico.
That diversity can help Whistler.
"With such a multicultural workforce, we are well placed to deliver an outstanding 'Whistler experience' to our guests who also come from across the globe," emailed Famulak.
Carole Stretch sees this changing face of Whistler perhaps better than anyone.
For the past five years she has been coordinating a settlement assistance program from new immigrants. It's basically an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, but it also deals with the myriad of settlement issues — jobs, loneliness, paperwork.
It is federally funded, with enough money to support about 15 people. She has 70 actively taking part.
"When I started five years ago, if you'd come to Monday morning group, which was the core group that we started with, it would have been overwhelmingly Japanese," says Stretch.
Typically, she says, it was young Japanese moms looking to improve their English and find connections in the community.
Eighteen months ago that all began to change.
Stretch began noticing South Americans and Mexicans, Egyptians and Filipinos. They weren't just here for a season but were in Whistler to start a new life.
"Now there's a new group who have taken the opportunity of having a job here to then take the opportunity of immigrating to Canada," she says.
To help this transition, Stretch has created the Whistler Multicultural Network, designed to build cultural connections across the community to support, inform and welcome immigrants and newcomers.
Many are coming through on the Provincial Nominee Program.
A look at some of the eligible occupations in that program shows why so many immigrants, particularly those under the entry level and semi-skilled category, are coming to Whistler.
Eligible occupations include: hotel front desk clerks, tour and travel guides, outdoor sport and recreational guides, maître d'hôtel and hosts/hostesses, bartenders, food and beverage serves, cleaners employed directly by hotels/resorts.
"These people are not here for the skiing or the biking," says Stretch. "Some of them have a go but it's not the main reason they're here. They come for the work and it's the work and the opportunity to immigrate to Canada and all that that represents. It's the opportunity of being here and being able to offer that to their children. That's the big thing. It's nothing to do with being in a mountain resort per say."
Paulo Aguilera, 33, didn't come to ski or ride his bike.
He came from Chile on a work permit two years ago and decided he liked it so much he wanted to stay.
He's a houseman at the Pan Pacific.
"It's a good lifestyle even if you don't do snowboarding or biking," says Paulo.
Around him the settlement group is hard at work, preparing poster boards for the intercultural festival in a classroom at Myrtle Philip school.
A kettle boils for tea as the quiet hum of hard work blankets the small room.
English is not a first language for most.
Paulo is the only one from Chile here. When it comes to Whistler, he likes, for example, that he can get to work in 15 minutes, as opposed to the hour-long commute through the city in Chile.
The hardest thing at first, however, is the language barrier. That's why he's been a part of the ESL program, to make that transition easier, to find common ground.
But there are small cultural differences that sometimes make him long for home, where he hasn't been for two years.
"In some ways we are a western culture as well, but there are some many differences with what we do, the social connections," explains Paulo.
In my country, he elaborates; people touch more and kiss more.
"Over here I see people touching more dogs!" he says.
"In some ways, I miss it."
So much time and effort in Whistler has gone towards easing the way for the seasonal workers, says Stretch. Traditionally the support services have been geared towards these workers.
Meanwhile, an influx of a different kind of worker is quietly permeating the community. They too need support.
"They're coming here to settle," says Stretch. "They're not going home."
At the Fairmont for example, Torrell said about half of the 100 workers who became permanent residents brought their families to Canada to live too.
She contacted the local school district to give the head's up on the influx. And she admits: "There's much more in city centres in Canada (in terms of support services) but it is new to Whistler."
One of the reasons why they recruited from the Philippines, she added, was not only because workers typically have a good grasp of English and a good reputation for hard work, but also because there was a solid community here already that could help ease the transition. That's a critical component of helping new workers feel happy and secure.
"We knew that that would be a positive influence on them and that (the community) would help them adjust to life in a cold mountain town," said Torrell.
"We've had a few Canadians born in our mix now," she says with a hint of pride.
Making a new home
Making a new home is not without its challenges. Rudy Bueno can attest to that.
"I will not deny, we had huge challenges," he says.
Finding a good job, meeting new friends, practicing English, setting up a new home, worrying about the kids fitting into school.
The Buenos work hard. Vina has her own cleaning company — Cleaners For All Seasons. Rudy, in addition to working full time at Whistler Blackcomb, has his own company, Sea to Sky Immigration Solutions, where he acts as an immigration consultant.
True, Whistler is a tough town to make ends meet. But, like all the others before them, Canadians and immigrants alike, the trade-offs for the Buenos are worth it — the clean air, the safe environment, the work.
Torrell can attest to that too through her work at the Fairmont.
"To see their faces and to hear their voices when you get to tell them that they've been approved for permanent resident, that's the best part of my job in the last three years," she says.
"They're so excited. They're so happy. They've embraced what Canada has to offer and let's face it; it's a great country. We forget how fortunate we are to live in a country like this."
At their home in 19 Mile Creek the Bueno kids laugh about first coming to Whistler.
Angela was 15 years old, Carlo 14 and Abigail just nine.
"We thought we were special," laughs Angela, of sticking out as the new immigrants.
People were really interested in their story, and it didn't take them long to find friends.
It's easy to feel the close bond of the family as they sit around the living room, gently teasing their mom about how she cleans the house all the time.
Family, says Rudy, is of utmost importance.
The Buenos have made sure that the Tagalog language is alive and well at home. It's one way of keeping the family together.
The other way is to ingrain in the children a respect for their parents.
They have been taught that when they come home, they go to their parents, take their right hand with their right hand and touch the back of their parents' hand lightly on their forehead.
It's called Mano Po.
"That thing makes us closer so we don't forget that the parents should be respected," explains Rudy.
And yet, the pressures of living in a Canadian society are felt in the Bueno home too.
Angela and Carlo, now 22 and 21 years old, are hoping to move out on their own.
Angela works in the hospitality industry at the Westin and has plans to go travelling in the not too distant future. Carlo works at the IGA for the time being. He's hoping to find work in his field of study, audio engineering.
"I want to prove to myself that I'm independent," says Carlo.
His sister echoes his sentiment, while younger sister Abigail, in Grade 10 at Whistler Secondary School looks on.
"I think it's about time to be independent and stand on my own two feet," says Angela.
Both have spent a couple of years in the city at school and are both at home, for the time being.
As opposed to fighting this course of events, Rudy and Vina have asked to kids to show them their plans for the future.
We have to change with the times too, says Rudy.
"One of the good things that we find here in Canada is teaching your kids to be independent, to make decisions on their own," he says.
And so, as the family makes plans to return to the Philippines this summer for a family vacation to celebrate the Buenos 25th wedding anniversary, Rudy has no hesitation when asked: was it worth it?
Was it worth the heartache of leaving behind family and home, the endless challenges of settling in a new country, starting all over again — new job, new house, new schools.
"I look at my kids and that's the answer to the question," said Rudy.
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