Rhose Harris-Galia

Arctic Bayanihan1

Ask anyone in most of the industrialized countries in the world if they have ever met or seen a Filipino at work and the answer will most likely be “Yes.” We are everywhere, doing everything, in every field—from private homes to being in the public eye, from housework to teaching, from the oil fields to the hospitals. The global Filipino community has quietly and yet most assuredly grown exponentially, making Filipinos one of the busiest and most well-known labour communities in the world to be found in every nook and cranny where there is work to be found. And one of those nooks happens to be latitude 63°44’N and longitude 68°31’W—better known as the City of Iqaluit, capital city of the Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut.

The Iqaluit Filipino community is a mixture of Filipinos from all walks of life, from the zero generation immigrants who are the first of their kin and clan to come to North America, to those who were born and raised in Southern Canada. There are those from the southern Philippines to the far northern islands, urbanites and those with rural roots. One might wonder how such a diverse group manages to live and integrate themselves into a community that is not only the complete opposite of home environmentally, but also a community that is mainly populated by Inuit, a people unique and distinct from every other Aboriginal nation in Canada. A very brief look at the history of the Philippines can help answer this question.

The Philippines had a rich culture long before the Spanish came in the mid-1600s. The trade between different Southeast Asian nations helped contribute to its prosperity, and also paved the way to its diversity. People from Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and China came and shared their own cultures and formed an identity uniquely Filipino. This integration of cultures held true upon the arrival of the Spaniards in 1521. For over 300 years, the Spaniards put their stamp on the Filipino identity in a multitude of ways, from politics, education, to religion. Then came the Spanish–American War, which resulted in the Philippines falling into American hands and leading to the Philippine–American war.2. Retrieved 4 November 2010 from: http://philippineamericanwar.webs.com/] The Americans contributed even more to the Filipino make-up, their main contribution being improved literacy and education for the masses. Then came World War II and the Japanese occupation, which was bloody, but mercifully brief. After all these conquerors, all these different nations laying claim to the Philippines, she finally won her freedom in 1946.

It is inevitable that a nation that has been conquered or taken over by another will have scars that would take generations to heal. Memories are long, and more so if that nation’s culture is forcibly stifled and the people prohibited from living their lives as they have always known. So what happened to the Filipino psyche? What came out as the Filipino identity after having been under so many conquerors, well-intentioned or not? Are we Spanish? American? Japanese? The answer: yes, we are all of these. And no, we are none of these. The plethora of contributing nations, conquerors and traders alike, turned the Filipino Culture into a delightful and complicated mix of East and West.

The Filipino culture is a combination of cultures that baffles most people, and is difficult to explain and pinpoint, even by Filipinos themselves. We take the best that other nations can contribute and make it our own. For instance, the Spaniards brought in Christianity, and the end result was that the Philippines became the largest Catholic nation in Southeast Asia. But our Catholicism also leaves room for the old beliefs that have been handed down from generation to generation: the strong belief in saints, and angels, spirits appeased by offerings and candles. While the pagan system of beliefs faded away into history, it did not disappear completely. Instead, it adapted to the new faith that had forced its way into the country, which made a new faith that took the best of both worlds and made it their own.

Another good example is the language. Filipino is one of two official languages of the Philippines, the other being English. Filipino is mostly based on Tagalog, which is the dialect of the Philippines’ central region. But Filipino is also a language that incorporates Malay, Chinese, English, Spanish, and even Latin. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who speaks undiluted Tagalog in the cities, but in the rural areas of Central Luzon,3 the older generation can be found using words that the younger generation would not be able to define.

Generation after generation, Filipinos were subject to a foreign power that imposed their own rules and their own culture. There was definite resistance to colonialism and foreign occupation, but in the midst of this, a distinct Filipino character took hold and bloomed. As a nation, Filipinos learned from their oppressors, observed, and eventually adapted to their presence. The old ways merged with the new and a balance of the two was found. It is this adaptability that is the hallmark of the Filipino. Wherever we go, whatever we do, we adapt to our new homes and make these our own. We manage to find a place in the community, without forcing our own practices, but instead, finding a way for our culture to meld with the existing environment we find ourselves in.

This holds true even as far North as Nunavut, Canada. I can think of no other place that is as geographically, environmentally, and culturally different from the Philippines as the Arctic; warm versus cold, tropics versus tundra, center of trade versus as isolated as they come. And yet here one will find a flourishing Filipino community that has grown quietly and managed to join with the Inuit community.

I was what most of my countrymen jokingly refer to as “fresh off the boat” when I moved to Iqaluit in 2000. At the time, there were only a handful of Filipinos in the Arctic, and my employer was quick to introduce me to them. One of them lived no more than five kilometres from my childhood home. She, too, still had family overseas and was working on having them move to Canada. The other Filipinos had already brought family over, or had gotten married and started families of their own. It was odd, to say the least, to see people who had been born and raised in tropical climes living and working in one of the world’s harshest environments. But work we did, and more; the Filipino community has grown from that handful to almost a hundred in 2010.

There are Filipinos who have been here for twenty years, and more keep coming. What is it about this particular community that makes them stay? Several have given their opinions regarding this, and if one looks closely enough, it turns out the Inuit community is not as far removed from the Philippine community at all.

The main similarity is the most obvious one: we look alike. Perhaps there is something to the Bering Strait theory, which suggests that somewhere early on in humankind’s history, Eurasians crossed a land bridge into what is now North America. It is easy enough to believe that one clan went one way and the other stayed and went southward. I was always mistaken as an Inuk when I first arrived, and it holds true to this day. There is the dark skin that tans readily, black hair, and the dark eyes that don’t quite have the obvious epicanthic folds. Facial characteristics like shape, bodily characteristics such as build, height, and so on strongly indicate a possible genetic connection that has yet to be examined.

If one listens hard enough, parallels with the language are noticeable as well. There are a few words that when loosely translated have identical meanings (for example, taima and tama na mean “that’s enough”). There are also words that are mere homonyms (for example, mammianaq and mamaya na mean “sorry” and “later,” respectively). It would take a keen linguist to find out just how close the two, Inuktitut and Filipino, truly are.

The strong sense of community is another similarity between the two. Whether or not you know your neighbour in the Philippines, if a tragedy occurs next door and you have been sharing the same wall for generations, you will help your neighbour. Entire communities band together during rough times. There is no difference in the Inuit culture. If there is a loss in the family, young or old, the entire community goes into mourning. Family members are comforted by neighbours regardless of whether their last chat was two weeks or two months prior.

The sense of oneness holds true in joyful occasions as well. Fiestas are frequent in the Philippines, and one can walk into a family’s backyard during holidays and partake of the food, regardless of whether or not one is related. The Inuit tradition of a community feast is exactly the same. Everyone partakes of the food that is set out, whether it is harvested from the sea, land, or the nearest grocery store.

There is one more strong similarity between the two cultures that stands out. It is the strength of faith. A Baptist sector, a Baha’i sector, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses are part of the Northern religious make-up. But the main denominations are Anglican and Roman Catholic. More than one Filipino has stated that it is this strong belief that binds them to the community. It is a common denominator that helps with not only adjusting to a life away from home, but it also helps in the initial presentation of the Filipinos into the community. Individuals and families are introduced, and eventually these groups meet socially outside of the Church setting. More than one Filipino I interviewed admitted that the community spirit that started in the churches helped them know the local community better, and the ties that started therein extended to the Inuit homes and social circles.

Offshoots of the church gatherings are the extended meetings that occur outside of regular Sunday services. Bible readings occur in different church members’ homes. These evolved from both prayers and potlucks, where people gather together to catch up with each other, into impromptu healing circles where problems slowly came to the forefront. While there are numerous gatherings within the Inuit community that are similar, healing ministries and fellowships are of common interest in both cultures and is another bond that connects the two.

But from a very personal perspective, I also see a difference when it comes to emotions. I see Filipinos as open with their emotions and problems when surrounded by those closest to them. We are undeniably emotional in the privacy of our homes, and where problems arise where tears are inevitable, we are, for the most part, open to talk about problems regardless of how red-rimmed our eyes may become. We easily ask for assistance when needed, especially if there are problems with violence, no matter how big or small. However, my own experiences with the Inuit are different as I often see them as more private when it comes to airing problems and I have not witnessed detailed discussions around addictions in the family or histories of abuse. From what I have seen, most of the Inuit will only open up regarding these issues if prompted by a counsellor, close family, or in extreme circumstances, alcohol and the law. There are groups nowadays comprised of church folk, and people can come when they wish just to express their feelings, air their issues, and talk without fear of repercussions. They can cry, they can laugh, they can console, and it serves as a way to recognize problems, talk about issues, and perhaps slowly encourage them to consider it not a weakness to speak of these issues, but a strength. From my cultural perspective, I see this as a beginning of sorts for a group that has held itself in check emotionally for so long. It is difficult to hear stories and not want to tell someone to take it a step further and reach out for assistance, but the fact is, it is a big enough step to have those with issues trust someone enough to open up. Change is slow, but if given half a chance, it might come in the form of growing self-awareness and a discovery of self-worth. Perhaps it is not so farfetched that such actions can help any community to change and heal.

The Filipino Community has indeed flourished in Canada’s northern climes. Baffin Island is not the only place where we can be found. We can be found in Cambridge Bay, Rankin Inlet, Yellowknife, and in smaller communities as well. It is our capability to adapt that makes us strong enough to move from our comfort zones and thrive in an environment that, while geographically polar opposites (pardon the pun), is not that different from the smaller barangays4 and farms from our home. Asked to reflect on how we as a community managed to integrate ourselves into the Inuit landscape, the answer is not just found in our history. It is not just because we come from a culture that melds with others and morphs into a distinct personality. We were welcomed, never truly treated as outsiders despite the obvious fact that we were. We were not from the North, and we were definitely ‘from away,’ as some would put it. The welcome had a lot to do with the fact that perhaps, in essence, we are simply meeting up with a community very much like ours, which has helped us feel at home. The process is constantly evolving, and the community is growing and adapting day by day.

If there was one thing Inuit can discover from their Filipino brethren, it is perhaps the realization that while we are in the twenty-first century, they do not need to give up their way of life, their language, their culture. If they look into the annals of history, there is something to be learned: that while one’s culture is indeed distinct, there is nothing to stop them from adapting to the modern world. Take advantage of what technology affords them: a global sounding board at the tips of everyone’s fingers. Inuit culture is rich, but many are afraid it is slowly fading. This does not need to happen. It will take generations, but it only takes one person, one family, or one community to show the rest that Inuit culture can adapt, it can adjust and blend with the modern world and not lose its distinct identity. They can survive the pains of the past and make the future their own.

There are key values that we Filipinos can learn from our Inuit counterparts as well. These can be summarized into what Inuit call Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, more commonly known as “IQ Principles.”5 It is loosely understood and translated as “Inuit traditional knowledge” and values that have been passed down from generation to generation. In the past few years and since the creation of Nunavut, the Inuit community has tried its best to explain this abstract concept in a more concrete manner. If one looks it up, one will find varied descriptions and breakdowns of what IQ Principles are. IQ shows us that the values of Inuit revolve around caring for each other, teamwork and community building, resourcefulness, innovativeness, and respect for people, the land, and resources. It is a set of teachings and resources handed down from Inuit Elders, now in written form, and are used to guide the new and upcoming generations.

Is it as simple as this, though? Can we read the IQ Principles and say, “Yes, this is so obvious”? All I need to do is commit it to memory. These principles were handed down from times past, and still are dynamic in such a way that it can adapt and adjust to what the changing times bring. The IQ Principles teach not only Inuit but everyone that the Elders knew how to take care of their land, their people, and their community and that these methods and lessons must be held true in order for the community to grow.

Sharing ideas between the Filipino and Inuit community is indeed not too difficult. The cultures are closer than most think, and communicating with each other goes deeper than the written and spoken word. Our similarities are more obvious than our differences, and it makes for a wonderful blend of East and West in the Far North.


Coming up North was not a long-term plan. It was supposed to be only for a year or two at the most, and then move to warmer climes… like Ottawa. Ten years later, Rhose Harris-Galia is still in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Having moved to Canada as a live-in caregiver in 1999, Rhose found her way to Iqaluit in October 2000 when job prospects were limited in Edmonton. Her first thoughts of “Where in the world am I?” were quelled by the warm welcome and easygoing nature of both her employers and the community. After receiving her permanent residency card, she immediately took the Canadian Registered Nurses Examination and passed. In December of 2002, she started work as a casual employee at what is now called the Qikiqtani General Hospital. She worked several jobs in addition to this, which included working at the Children’s Group Home, as a customer service agent/supervisor for First Air, and even as a security guard at the airport. Her various occupations kept her in touch with different aspects of the Iqaluit community and introduced her to many of the city’s residents. She decided to go full-time at the Hospital in 2006. She and her partner Mathew bought a house in 2004 and were married in 2007. They still reside in Iqaluit with their two-year old son, Brian Daniel.

  1. Bayanihan is a Filipino term taken from the word bayan, referring to a nation, town or community. The whole term bayanihan refers to a spirit of communal unity or effort to achieve a particular objective.
  2. Dumindin, A. (2006). Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 [online book
  3. Central Luzon (also known as Region III) is located north of Manila, the nation’s capital, on the Philippine’s largest island.
  4. A barangay is similar to a village and is headed by the smallest local government unit.
  5. See “Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit (IQ)” from the Government of Nunavut website. Retrieved 30 November 2010 from: http://www.gov.nu.ca/hr/site/beliefsystem.htm