Foreign Policy Blogs

Filipino diaspora in the Arctic sends help back home

Typhoon Haiyan from space.

Typhoon Haiyan from space. Photo: NASA.

The Filipino diaspora is one of the most widespread in the world, with members making their homes from Alaska to the UAE. The FT reports that in 2012, overseas Filipino sent $21 billion back to their country of origin. Now, in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda, one of the most powerful storms in recorded history, Filipinos around the world are holding fundraisers and drives to help send aide to those struck by the devastation. The Arctic is no exception, as Iqaluit, Nuuk, and Reykjavik are just three cities where Filipinos are joining forces.

Filipinos in Iqaluit

Iqaluit, home to ~70 Filipinos. Photo: AScappatura/Flickr.

Iqaluit, home to ~70 Filipinos. Photo: AScappatura/Flickr.

In Canada, from 2003-2012, Filipinos constituted the second largest group of immigrants after China, topping even the United States [1]. In 2008, the Philippines actually overtook China as the leading source of immigrants into Canada. An upgrade in October to the existing memorandum of understanding between the Philippines and Saskatchewan on facilitating the recruitment of Filipinos for jobs in the province will likely increase immigration even more. Breaking it down by province and territory, from 1998 to 2011, the Philippines were the highest source of immigrants into the Northwest Territories, where 395 Filipinos moved, and Nunavut. Nunatsiaq Online reports that in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, there are approximately 25 Filipino families, numbering about 70 Filipinos total.

Bob Gabuna is one such immigrant. He moved to Iqaluit a few years ago to join his wife, who works in the Department of Health and Social Services. After the Canadian International Development Agency announced that the federal government had pledged to match every dollar donated to a Canadian charity for typhoon relief efforts, Gabuna asked fellow Filipinos in the Arctic city, “Are we going to mobilize ourselves as Filipino-Canadian-Nunavummiut and raise funds and avail the offer of the CIDA minister Paradis?”

That there could a “Filipino-Canadian-Nunavummiut” community highlights the way in which migration is forging new, hybrid identities in the Arctic. A CBC story last year documented a wintertime Filipino party in Iqaluit, complete with lechon, or roasted pig, flown in from Ottawa for the occasion. When Canada, as the chair of the Arctic Council, calls for “development for the people of the North,” it’s important to realize that the people of the North are more of a mosaic than ever before. Canada seeks to promote sustainable circumpolar communities, and in many cases due to a shortage of workers, the only way to foster sustainability is through immigration. Not fly-in, fly-out employees, but rather people who permanently move and become part of the community while sometimes even managing to happily adapt to the harsh climate. At the party in Iqaluit, guest Laudeline Atienza, a resident of the even smaller town of Cambridge Bay, “In the Philippines the weather is very different we have. It’s really hot there compared to here. Here’s it’s really cold. We’re not sweating anymore.”

I emailed Gabuna asking him about how integrated Filipinos are into the local community in Iqaluit. He joked that Filipinos oddly resemble the Inuit, with his own wife having been mistaken for the outgoing premier Eva Aariak. Gabuna then explained that many Filipinos working for airlines owned by Inuit-owned corporations, for instance, have learned to speak Inuktitut, as that is the language of many of the passengers on board. In an interesting adaptation of Filipino traditions for Arctic conditions, Gabuna added, “In our particular case, my wife and I built a house in the Arctic – the first Filipino-Canadian couple to do so, according to the building contractor that built our house. We did the architectural design of the house – patterned after the geometric shape of a “nipa hut”, the traditional house in rural Philippines; but, of course the materials used are housing material tempered to withstand blizzards and freezing temperature in the Arctic.”

Filipino-Canadian-Nunavummiut efforts to rally around their country of birth are working. Last week, the Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic parish raised $750 to donate to the International Red Cross for relief efforts. Chief Magistrate of the City of Iqaluit, John Graham, is helping to organize a fundraising dinner on November 30. A corporate donor will sponsor the dinner, for which a local grocery store will donate a roast, shrimps, and halibut. A regional airline is donating two return tickets from Iqaluit to Ottawa, while a Nunavut bank will open a temporary account, the Filipino Typhoon Relief Fund, to accept donations. Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike – all Nunavummiut – are thus banding together to send relief to the Philippines, thousands of miles away from Iqaluit.

Little Manila in Nuuk


825 kilometers from Iqaluit across the Davis Strait in Greenland, a sizable number of Filipinos reside in the capital of Nuuk. Along with Thais, they make up the largest group of Asian immigrants in the country. Nuuk hosts both a Thai restaurant and a Filipino market. There are only 60 registered Roman Catholics in all of Greenland (pop. 57,000), of which many are Filipinos (the others being Poles and Danes, for the most part). Greenland’s Red Cross has raised 100,000 kroner for the Philippines earmarked for clean drinking water. According to the Arctic Journal, half of that sum comes from the Red Cross second-hand store in Nuuk, often frequented by Filipinos residing in the city. An op-ed in Sermitsiaq asks why Greenland’s government isn’t doing more to help the Philippines recover; so far, it has only sent a letter of condolences to the Philippine Embassy in Denmark.

In living in Greenland, Filipinos probably have a relatively harder time of maintaining their traditions. It’s not so easy to fly in a lechon for a party, as Nuuk is arguably even more remote than Iqaluit. But Filipinos have still been able to adapt and build communities both amongst themselves and with other residents in Greenland that they now are able to call upon in a time of crisis back home.

Danielli Rubias-Henriksen, a Filipina who has resided in Greenland since 2008 and is married to a Dane, runs the blog “From Ibajay to Nuuk” detailing her experience living in the world’s second northernmost capital. She’s even been featured on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Greenland, Sermitsiaq with the headline, “She went against the flow: Filipina tells how to become integrated in Greenland.” Henriksen describes how the responsibility to integrate often falls on the immigrant rather than the government. She writes in her blog, “Being fully aware  that an ‘integration program’ for some one like me is none existent in this country, I had came to a point of self- realization that here in Greenland, it is rather a personal choice if some one wants to be integrated. And that means, it’s more of me who will do the work to make it happen and simply not just wait for Kalalliit Nunaat to make me feel I belong.”


Reykjavik is a more cosmopolitan city than Iqaluit or Nuuk. As a result, it has somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 Filipinos, many of whom work as office and factory workers and nurses. The Filipino-Icelandic Association is helping to collect donations, with more instructions on how to help here. An article in the magazine Iceland Review by Marvi Ablaza Gil, a Tagalog teacher living in Reykjavik, questioned why the country wasn’t doing more to help out the fellow island nation, especially in light of the surprising amount of cooperation between the two countries. Iceland, a global leader in geothermal energy, has helped the Philippines expand its geothermal capacity, which currently sits at 15 percent, while hydropower is at 14 percent [2]. It was not until November 12 that Iceland came forward with a donation of $100,000 – the same as the amount that China initially offered (though it has now increased that figure to $1.6 million). Gil offered in her article “The connection between Iceland and the Philippines may not be as obvious and tangible as Iceland and Denmark but see, we do have a connection and a future together.” The same could be said about the Arctic and the tropical island states, as climate change disproportionately affects both.

Kapwa and Adaptation

The relationship between Typhoon Yolanda and climate change is uncertain. The latest IPCC report concludes that a large percentage of climate change is irreversible without significant, sustained reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, humans instead must adapt. One way of adapting is harnessing the power of international networks and diasporas. Filipinos may be more adept at this than most. While every culture has its own heterogeneities, one tenet of Filipino culture is kapwa, Tagalog for “togetherness,” “shared being,” and integration with the surrounding community. The house that Gabuna built in Nuuk exemplifies kapwa. In finding global solutions for climate change, perhaps the international community could adopt some of this mentality.


[1] Citizenship and Immigration Canada

[2] U.S. Energy Information Administration



Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is pursuing a PhD in Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She received her MPhil (with Distinction) in Polar Studies from the University of Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute, where she was a Gates Scholar.

Mia examines how climate change is reshaping the geopolitics of the Arctic through an investigation of scientific endeavors, transportation and trade networks, governance, and natural resource development. Her masters dissertation investigated the extent of an Asian-Arctic region, focusing on the activities of Korea, China, and Japan in the circumpolar north. Mia's work has appeared in ReNew Canada, Water Canada, FACTA, and Baltic Rim Economies, among other publications.

She speaks French, Swedish, and is learning Russian.

Follow her on Twitter @miageografia