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Finding home away from home in Fort St. John

Having that sense of community when you are new in town is priceless.
The author, Ovvian Castrillo-Hill, enjoying a milk tea in Fort St. John: "Whether we’ve been here for a decade or more, or are new to Fort St. John, I can attest to the fact that we are grateful for culturally specific businesses and services that we did not used to have in town." (Supplied)

EX SITU, the documentary series I am making (to differentiate from EX SITU, the annual art exhibit I curate), is a series of interviews of various Filipino-Canadians who have come to Fort St. John in different decades. Through their lenses, the viewers will be able to see a glimpse of how Fort St. John has changed though the years, especially from a Filipino-Canadian immigrant's perspective.

While deep into doing this documentary series regarding the Filipino migration to this part of the world, I can’t help but recall my own personal journey as an immigrant to the City of Fort St. John. Before coming to Fort St. John as a tourist in 2009, I was a sculptor based in cosmopolitan Makati City. Before that, I specified art for the top brand hotel chains; work that had me flying to and from places like Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Macao. Because of this, I was used to living and navigating in world standard big city settings.

While I knew not to expect the same in Fort St. John, I was still pleasantly surprised by what I saw when I got here in 2009. I suppose I thought this way since I was expecting a community more like that in the CBS TV show, Northern Exposure. Fort St. John is considerably larger than that.

To my surprise (and joy), there were also over a hundred Filipino-Canadians who were here before me. I met many of them through the North Peace Filipino Canadian Association (NPFilCan, a provincially registered society est. 2007). This was a very important part of my journey, because the friends I have made have become my Filipino ‘family’ here in Fort St. John. Having that sense of community when you are new in town is priceless. My new friends, some who have been here since the 1970s, knew the difficulties of coming to a place like Fort St. John from halfway across the globe, where snow never fell and coconuts were aplenty. It was through their guidance and care that I was able to embrace the Canadian immigrant experience here in Fort St. John.

The life of an immigrant is culturally challenging in that you need to strike a balance between your own culture and identity, as well as the culture of where you have emigrated. It’s like having one foot on your new country, and the other firmly planted back home. While enjoying the newness of our new surroundings, we long for the comforts of the familiar, whether that be food, speaking your dialect or the literal warmth of the sun.

Often, immigrants seek the feeling of being welcomed in a non-threatening environment. I was no different. I looked and found these connections when I returned to Fort St. John as a permanent resident in 2011. I contributed to the hip Northern Groove magazine (discontinued). I joined art/craft competitions, such as the one where my neighbour Lorna Nyfeller and I made an outfit out of film rolls. That’s when I met the late Sue Popesku. Sue, who was very kind and welcoming, was the very first person in Fort St. John to be curious about my art and encouraged me to practice it here.

In the community, places like the Rotary Early Years Play Centre at the CDC and the Fort St. John Public Library also made my son and I feel like we belonged. It’s in such places, where newcomers like myself could assimilate and exercise ‘citizenship’ in a community through participation in things that are common among our humanity. In this case, it was play, reading, and parenthood.

In 2011, there was only one corner in one place that carried a few Filipino items brought in from Edmonton or Vancouver. Things are much different today. The Filipino-Canadian community has grown to over 1000 and even more are coming to our city (as temporary residents, such as international students). Whether we’ve been here for a decade or more, or are new to Fort St. John, I can attest to the fact that we are grateful for culturally specific businesses and services that we did not used to have in town.

While major groceries now have international food aisles, Filipino specific grocery items (not limited to foodstuff) can be found in the Fort St. John community. These include frozen foods (seafood, dried seafood, frozen Asian veggies, breads, etc.). 

As the Filipino-Canadian community grows, so do our needs and our ability to be a part of the larger community of Fort St. John. And because there are more of us, there are more sectors and businesses we represent: restaurants, reflexology and massage, real estate, barbering, tattoo artistry, immigration consulting, accounting, t-shirt printing, and martial arts. With that, we also have more opportunities for us to share, partake, and invest in the place we live and work. 

Hopefully, this information can aid those new to Fort St. John, as you settle in Canada. The FilCan community welcomes you in making Fort St. John your home (away from home), just as we have done.

Ovvian Castrillo-Hill lives and writes in Fort St. John.

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