Chrisie Servanez had been told what to expect of her new home in Canada.
It was remote. There would be no public transit. Stores close by 7 p.m.
Still, it couldn’t be that bad, thought the migrant worker; it’s Canada, after all — it’s a first-rate, developed country.
But as she took the four-hour car ride with her employer from the Winnipeg airport to the rural town of Russell, Man., she was shocked to see the endless farms and open fields that reminded her of the countryside of her native Philippines.
“There were no (tall) buildings. It was all farms. I didn’t even see a single bus,” says the 35-year-old of the day in August 2017 that she arrived in Canada for a job as a restaurant server.
“Am I really in Canada? It’s not the Canada that I’d seen in postcards and movies.”
What would also leave Servanez taken aback was the number of her compatriots in this small community with a population of just 1,700 at the junction of highways 16 and 83 in the picturesque Parkland Region of Manitoba.
A manager at the Russell Inn, where she was to start working in a few days, had already emailed everyone on staff of her arrival and a few of the Filipino workers were at the lobby to welcome her.
That evening, her new colleagues threw a party at one of their homes for her and another new Filipino worker who had also arrived that day. Over six hours, some 40 people trickled in with food and desserts to welcome them to “the family,” some arriving after work at 10 p.m.
Over music and karaoke, they chatted in Taglish — a mix of Tagalog and English — to get to know the new arrivals. Already exhausted from the long flight and jet lag, Servanez said everything was a blur that first night in Russell.
Almost every Filipino currently in town — more than 220 — can trace their origin to the Russell Inn. Either they were a migrant worker at the hotel, its associated restaurants and gas station, or they came here as a result of someone who was.
Like many of the Filipinos who have come before her to Russell, Servanez, too, was hired through a friend already working at the hotel. They have all longed to live and work in a western country and not to have to worry about landing a survival job and putting bread on the table.
What began as a rural hotel trying to find skilled workers in an aging community has since blossomed into a symbiotic relationship with the entire town — as newcomers, finding themselves among friends and in a local community that welcomes them, choose to put down roots, thanks to unique provincial legislation that offers a path to permanent residency for rural migrant workers.
Russell, which is two hours from Brandon, has long been an established service centre for nearby farming, mining and logging communities in rural Manitoba.
In the early 1970s, the region’s economy was forced to transform. Agriculture was no longer a viable livelihood option for the majority of rural residents due to commercialization and mechanization of farming, which required huge capital investment. Rural tourism became part of the regional strategy to diversify the economy.
It was in 1971 when the Russell Inn opened its doors to serve passing businessmen, travellers, truckers and a growing number of tourists.
Through the years, what started as a 30-room roadside motel has grown into a 126-room hotel and conference centre, with a ski hill resort minutes away, a restaurant, bar, gas station, a Subway and Tim Hortons.
Daymon Guillas, who started as the motel’s manager as a young man in 1982, says he used to have plenty of local job applicants. However, an aging population compounded by the departure of young people for bigger communities, meant the local labour shortage had become even more acute by the time the original owners sold him the business in 2008.
“I actually contemplated selling the business or shutting down departments,” says Guillas, who was born in nearby Grandview but grew up in Dauphin. “We couldn’t find staff. Those remaining have been working here for 20 to 38 years. We’re all long-timers.
“The stress was so high. We were all working 12, 14 hours a day, seven days a week. We were exhausted because it was not sustainable.”
At the suggestion of the architect of his ski hill resort who happened to be Filipino, Guillas started to explore the temporary foreign worker program and brought in the first employee from the Philippines in 2009.
Today, his business conglomerate has 338 employees, about a quarter of them Filipinos, working on the front desk, in housekeeping, maintenance, as servers, and as kitchen and counter help.
“So we now have a solid workforce, a skilled workforce. They’re proud to be hotel employees and food service employees when many consider these jobs undesirable. Because we have motivated co-workers, we are retaining far more existing Canadian staff,” says Guillas, 59, who is of French and Belgian heritage.
“We have become the employment centre, unintentionally, for many of the local businesses. They come work for us for a period of time, then leave for other higher paying jobs. And that’s part of the process and we are OK with that.”
It wasn’t all a smooth ride from the start though, says Guillas, as he was met with concerns from some locals worrying about cheap foreign workers taking jobs away from Canadians.
“If there were Canadians applying for the jobs, they would be hired. I think the people that make these comments are well intentioned, but really poorly informed,” he explains.
“The hotel and restaurant industry doesn’t make a lot of money. We would love to pay everybody 25 bucks an hour, but it is not possible. Is the labour a low-paid labour? Yes. Whether you are a Canadian or a foreign worker, you’re going to get the same wage per hour.”
What’s bringing migrant workers to this small Canadian town is more than the job opportunities in waiting, but the possibility of permanent residence under Manitoba’s provincial immigration nominee program — and then to bring their families here for a better future.
The provincial program offers pathways for workers with skills in demand in the province to earn permanent residence and is one of the signature initiatives over the years by Ottawa to “regionalize” the benefits of immigration — for population growth and to fill labour shortages — across Canada, so newcomers don’t all concentrate in big cities and can help keep small rural communities vibrant.
Latest census numbers show less than 9 per cent of recent immigrants settle outside of major urban areas, and even fewer in rural communities which struggle with an aging population as well as skill and labour shortages.
There’s a high price to pay, however, before these migrant workers in smaller communities get to earn the coveted permanent status and reunite with their separated families back home.
Lorelee de Guzman, a native of Central Luzon, was one of the first recruited to work in Russell, after spending six years as a migrant retail manager in Dubai.
The former television and radio studio technician first came to Canada as a migrant worker at a liquor store in Airdrie, a small city near Calgary, but left Alberta after one year when she learned her job there would not make her eligible for permanent residence in that province.
A friend told her about a job posting by the Russell Inn that could give her a shot at permanent status, and she arrived here in August 2010 to work as a baker at Tim Hortons.
By the time she became a permanent resident in Canada and returned to the Philippines in 2014, she had not seen her three children — Daryl, Ken and Danille — for five years. They were in the care of their grandparents back home, but she couldn’t visit because she needed to save every penny for their future settlement in Canada.
“I raised my kids on Skype and Facebook,” says de Guzman, 48, sobbing. “I can’t say I raised them. I was just a provider. But I had to do this for my kids to give them a good future. I got to go somewhere I couldn’t take them. I didn’t care where as long as I could get my paper and bring my children here.”
When they joined her, she says her children felt a bit distant, as they were used to seeing their mother from a computer screen, but it didn’t take long for them to warm up to her.
The single mom left her job at Tim Hortons in 2014 and found another one as a housing co-ordinator for a local non-profit organization before landing a full-time position in housekeeping at a long-term-care facility while also working part-time as a home-care support worker.
To give her children their own home, she “used up my credit line” to purchase a three-bedroom house so the family could plant their roots in Russell. Daryl later got a job as a custodian at the local school while Ken worked at Tim Hortons and Danille found a job at the convenience store inside Russell Inn.
Today, Daryl lives and works as a heavy equipment operator across the provincial border in Moosomin, Sask.; Danille is studying nursing in the University of Saskatchewan; Ken is running the Fil-Russ Filipino Store on Russell’s Main Street that he and his mother took over in 2018.
“We have rice noodles, noodle cups, Milo (a chocolate drink), ginger tea, Filipino sausage, spring rolls, steam buns. You name it. We even have a remittance machine,” says de Guzman, whose store also offers deliveries to Filipinos in nearby communities. “All these items help us with our homesickness.”
With her own home, business, children — and also a three-year-old grandson, Drew, in Canada, she said coming to Russell was the best decision she’s ever made.
“We started our life here from scratch. I just wanted to be able to put food on the table for my family and a roof over their heads. I’ve done that and have no regret,” says de Guzman.
Lourdes Perez and her husband, Virgilio, had tried to apply under the Albertan provincial immigration program in 2008 after getting formal training in food serving for her and in welding for him. When their application was refused, she left for Hong Kong as a live-in caregiver.
In 2012, a friend of her cousin who is a friend of Russell Inn’s owner told her they were looking for migrant workers to work as servers at his restaurant. She arrived there in early April 2013, when it was still blanketed with snow.
“I was very emotional leaving Hong Kong, because I would be so far away from my family and I wouldn’t be seeing my husband and our two daughters for a long time,” recalls the 50-year-old woman, who used to be a broadcast journalist in the Philippines.
“Everyone wants to come to Canada. People were saying how lucky I was being chosen and I should be grateful, but I was crying while I was travelling. The best thing was there were already some Filipino workers here and they welcomed me with open arms because all we had was each other.”
Perez was provided with boarding at the hotel and access to the internet, which she says is a lifeline for all the Filipino workers to stay connected with their families and the world outside of Russell.
Located near the Asessippi Provincial Park and the scenic Lake of the Prairies known for fishing, hunting and camping aficionados, Russell has plenty of recreational facilities including ball fields, curling and hockey arenas, a swimming pool, snowboarding and downhill skiing, and a nine-hole golf course.
But there is really not much in the way of entertainment.
Neither is there a shopping centre or theatre in town, where Main Street is the focal business hub with a few clothing stores, florist, pharmacy, coffee shops, home improvement, grocery store, thrift shop and banks, as well as personal services such as a tattoo artist, chiropractor, physiotherapy, and hair and nail salons. There are only a couple of popular bars where people can go at night.
While most activities are event-based or seasonally based such as Canada Day and Christmas parades as well as the annual Beef & Barley Festival, a really big part of community life is the “Socials” where people get together and help fundraise for various situations like a young couple getting married, a charity or local organization in need of help.
Members of the Filipino community, already known for their big parties, fit in perfectly in the town and have injected new energy into an otherwise aging population.
The Filipino migrant workers, mostly women who don’t own vehicles, also spend a lot of their time off with families on video calls, something they don’t get to do during their work week due to the 13-hour time difference between Russell and Manila.
“We all walked to do things even when it’s -50 C, because none of us had a car. There’s no bus service in town. If we had to go out of town, we needed to ask our Canadian colleagues for help,” Perez says of the winter in Russell that typically starts at the end of October and lasts till April.
“It’s a different world and it’s hard, but we just kept telling ourselves that this would pass and we would make it.”
The whole crew would be ecstatic when one of the workers was approved for permanent residence and joined by their families in Russell, everyone hoping that “I will be the next,” she says.
Perez’s husband and their two teenage daughters, Vialou and Gialou, now 27 and 20, joined her in 2016 when they were granted permanent residence to Canada. But the family’s stay in town only lasted a few months because the girls kept begging their mother to move to Winnipeg, which resembles more of the urban life they were used in the Philippines.
But Perez still goes back a couple of times a year to see the friends she met there.
“Russell is my second home,” says Perez, who worked as a bartender at a casino in Winnipeg until the pandemic. “It gave me a life-changing opportunity to be in Canada, so my daughters can have a better future. For that, I’m forever thankful.”
Born in Winnipeg, Rheanne Gray, 53, grew up in Russell with just one Filipino family in town, that of a family doctor who brought his family here.
She says Russell is a progressive community, which welcomes and embraces the Filipino newcomers as their own, though a few locals initially grumbled about outsiders coming in to take jobs from them.
That said, the locals do look out for them, trying to ensure they feel at home and get invited to every activity as small as a tea and coffee at home — all to encourage interaction and break down walls and barriers.
There have been Filipino spring roll cooking classes, a large cultural festival, Culturama, where newcomers and First Nations communities did tastings of dishes from their home nations, as well as the Filipino supper that’s open to all. At the Canada Day parade this year, there was even a Filipino float with the flags of the Philippines and the Maple Leaf flying side by side.
“We need to help people come to understanding through little bits of knowledge and education. That’s a long and painful process. But the only way to get people to embrace unity and diversity is to just help educate them and dispel those fears,” says Gray, whose family, originally from Scotland, has lived in the area for five generations.
Working alongside her Filipino co-workers, many of them are now her friends, Gray says she admires their determination, perseverance and professionalism.
“As you get to know them, they start to talk about their inner life and their inner feelings. And I couldn’t bear the thought of them being away from their children and family,” says Gray, a single mother of two.
“I would come home every day. And I would cry and say to my kids, ‘How do we help them and their families? Family should not be apart. It’s wrong.’”
One night in 2011, Gray’s daughter, Ayla, and son, Van, then 11 and six, showed her a letter they had drafted to hand out in school to raise money to cover airfare for the Filipino workers’ children to join their parents in Canada.
That’s when the duo’s Kids Helping Kids campaign was launched to organize raffles, bake sales, lemonade stand and toque sales in the community to support the migrant workers, who must show they have enough funds in their bank accounts to support their arriving family members before their kids and spouses can come here.
The campaign, which has been inactive since Ayla left town to attend university in Winnipeg, brought together the community in welcoming the new waves of Filipino newcomers.
“Right from the earliest times when the first settlers got here, the Ojibwe and Cree people who lived in this area welcomed them and helped them get through those first winters. And this is part of who we are as human beings. I think this reminded the local people of their humanity and it sparked friendships and conversations,” Gray says.
Not only have the locals become more aware of events in the Philippines, a few have even travelled there at the recommendation of their Filipino friends in Russell.
Maria Christine Diores is among a few local Filipino residents who or whose family didn’t come here through the Russell Inn.
A trained veterinarian from the Philippines, Diores was recruited to work on a hog barn in Roslyn, Man., in 2011 as a farm supervisor but was let go after three months because her “small stature” prevented her from operating heavy equipment.
With three kids to support back home, the youngest then just 18 months, the widow was desperate to find another job in Canada. She called all the animal clinics in the area before she was offered a job in 2012 by Cathy Clemence, a veterinarian in Russell, as an animal health technician.
Like many migrant workers, Diores was not allowed to take her children with her to Canada and they stayed with her sister in Mindanao until she became a Canadian permanent resident in 2014. Denise, now 20, Samantha, 16, and Kenzo, 11, were twice denied visitor visas to visit their mother.
While employment and the prospect of bringing families to Canada as permanent residents are strong incentives for Filipino workers to settle in Russell, Diores says a welcoming host community is what it all comes down to.
“The town acknowledges your presence and you’re not just a simple fly that landed on their land. They make you feel welcomed and you belong here,” says Diores, who with her business partners are opening the town’s first Filipino restaurant this summer. “That’s the key.”
Dalhousie University professor Catherine Bryan, who recently published an in-depth study about the Filipino experience in Russell, says many rural communities have trouble retaining workers once the migrant workers become permanent residents.
But Russell appears to be a success story and that may have to do with the Russell Inn’s recruitment and retention strategy to hire the friends and relatives of the Filipino workers who are already working for them. By building a sense of community, it helps the management attract, recruit and retain a more permanent workforce.
“People develop relationships with others. The employer has facilitated the transition to residency for these workers, they often times feel a sense of indebtedness or loyalty to their employer,” says Bryan, whose research focuses on work, labour and transnational family life.
“That kind of connection and relationship building may actually be easier in smaller communities than in big urban centres.”
The provincial immigration program, by offering a pathway for permanent residence, helps undercut the “exploitative potential” of the migrant workers by their employers, she says. But it excludes many of those in agriculture and on short-term contracts, or in the fish processing industry in the Atlantic region, and the pathway is only possible when there’s a full-time, permanent job offer.
“Basically, the temporary foreign worker program is a stick and the provincial nominee program is a carrot. The end result is not exactly the same, but it’s similar,” Bryan says.
“Folks remain vulnerable to exploitation as they work to realize their migration objectives, which typically involve supporting family in the country of origin.”
Hannah Holt, the regional settlement facilitator for the Municipality of Russell-Binscarth, said some 60 Filipinos have moved out of the area over the years but they only account for 17 per cent of the arrivals from the Philippines.
Children of Filipino immigrants currently make up 10 per cent of the 500 students enrolled in the local school, Major Pratt School, which offers classes from kindergarten to Grade 12, according to Holt.
She believes the high retention rate of Filipino newcomers in the community has a lot to do with the management of Russell Inn, which offers a lot of support to arriving workers from the get-go and hiring their family and friends works.
“They provide staff accommodation with other Filipinos so they can support each other and feel more at home before the family even comes to Canada,” says Holt, a recent newcomer from New Zealand who initially worked at the Russell ski hill resort.
“Having a critical mass is important to retain and continue the flow of people to Russell.”
There are also other perks from living in a rural centre such as Russell: lower costs of living, affordable housing and safe neighbourhoods.
“Small communities have an incredibly strong sense of togetherness. And I don’t think people from the city understand that. It’s that it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child attitude. That’s very evident here,” says Cheryl Kingdon-Chartier, mayor of Russell-Binscarth.
“People migrate to the city because that’s what they know. And small towns are an unknown. To some people, your comfort zone is the city and it’s a little intimidating to move up here. Then you find out this is a different comfort zone that can become your own.”
She says the town is blessed to have the Filipino newcomers who share the same work ethics as the locals and are eager to integrate and give back to the community. The town council strives to have inclusive policies that encompass everyone and make them feel part of the family.
“Communities always are in the process of developing. We’re all evolving together, moving forward together,” she says. “We are all one community.”
Now, almost four years after her arrival, Servanez, who has a university degree in nursing back home and worked in restaurants in Singapore for seven years before joining the Russell Inn family, has been a permanent resident since 2019 but chose to stay at her job as a food server at Russell Inn and taken up a part-time job as an aid at a local nursing home.
She says she has lost her love for snow after her first winter in Canada. She got her drivers’s licence last year and bought herself a Toyota RAV4 so now she has the freedom to go out and about to explore Canada. She has even picked up camping in the summer.
Servanez says it’s easy to save money in Russell because there’s nowhere to spend it. She has even learned to cook for herself because there are few places open after work.
Her next goal is to buy a house, but before then, she jokes she would like to find a husband — a challenging task, she says, in a small town.
“As a child, I told myself, I wanted to go to Canada if I ever was gonna work abroad,” says Servanez. “My dream has come true. I’m here.”