First Christmas in Newfoundland: a bittersweet holiday

Kathleen Tucker
Published on December 23, 2013

Mitch Gutierrez, Liza Layda and Arman Villanueva getting into the Christmas spirit at their place of employment (Tim Horton’s) in St. Anthony.

Kathleen Tucker photo

Filipino worker talks about making the move to Canada

Arman Villanueva and his friends and co-workers, Mitch Gutierrez, Liza Layda and Lillibeth Sison, will celebrate their first Christmas in Newfoundland this year.

Arman, who grew up in the city of Manila in the Philippines, says he and his friends are very excited about the upcoming Christmas dinner, which will feature turkey and all the trimmings.  Their hosts—and employers—Leonard and Hazel Tucker of St. Anthony, will serve a traditional Newfoundland dinner, including pork, “Because the young people are very fond of pork,” smiles Leonard.

Arman has a wife and two young sons who will not be spending Christmas with their daddy this year, and that tugs at Arman’s heartstrings. His wife, Mary Rose, and sons Raphael, five, and Marcus, almost two, will spend Christmas with her family and Arman’s family in Manila.

In the Philippines, Christmas celebrations start Dec. 16 with a night mass, and this continues every evening straight through to Dec. 24. Although Arman and Mary Rose enjoy attending mass nightly, it is difficult waking their sons for the services.

Christmas Day in the Philippines is anything but quiet, says Arman. Schools close for Christmas vacation Dec. 20 and don’t open again until the first Monday in January. People take full advantage of the holiday to take to the roads and visit with family.  “On Christmas Day the roads are very busy,” he says. “And we open our gifts Christmas morning, just like people in Canada.”  

And how does their fare compare with Newfoundland fare? “For Christmas lunch in Manila we usually eat chicken, ham and rice,” says Arman. 


Typhoon Haiyan


For many Filipinos, there will be more to think about than what gifts to buy their family and friends this Christmas. Typhoon Haiyan swept across the Philippines Nov. 7 and goes on record as being the strongest ever to make landfall. While the Philippines endures more than 20 major storms a year, Super Typhoon Haiyan killed almost 5,800 people, at last count, and displaced almost half a million, with more than 1,700 still unaccounted for. 

“I have a relative in Tacloban,” says Arman, “but he and his family live farther inland so they were not devastated by the typhoon as many were.”

Still, there are six Filipinos living and working in the town of St. Anthony, and when local businessman Maurice Simmonds heard about the plight of friends and family in the Philippines from an employee, Aileen Patey, he went into action and helped organize a fund-raising bingo, which funneled contributions to the Red Cross to be used in the Philippines. Area businesses made contributions and the local Legion gave up a regular bingo night to support the cause.    That fund-raising bingo raised almost $3,000, which was matched by an equal donation from the Canadian government.


“I could not support my family financially”


Arman arrived in Canada in March of this year.

“My reason for coming to Canada was that in the Philippines I worked at a regular job but I could not support my wife or children financially. When I received my pay cheque it didn’t take care of our daily needs. Then I heard that lots of my friends were working in Canada, so I applied for a work permit.” 

Arman is currently on a two-year contract with Tim Horton’s and, when the time comes, he hopes to be extended another two years. 

He has more than his wife and children to support; he sends money home to his mother and a brother and sister as well.

“In the Philippines we work much harder for less pay. Here in Canada there is more opportunity to advance, and there might be an opportunity for my wife to work as well. If she were over here, we would be better able to help our families back in the Philippines.”


A place of safety

Arman would like to see his children raised in a safe environment. Although he grew up in Manila and is accustomed to city life, he would like something better for his boys. There is a significant high-school dropout rate in Manila, and many teenagers have fallen prey to drugs. 

He gives an amused grin as he confesses that he is still somewhat surprised that he can walk to work at 4 o’clock in the morning in St. Anthony without being robbed.

“In Manila, I was robbed twice at knife-point and one time it was a snatch-and-grab robbery; a robber snatched my gold necklace from my neck and ran off with it,” he says. “Once someone held me up with a knife and stole my watch, and another time someone held me up at knife-point and stole my wallet.”  

Since moving to Newfoundland, Arman is grateful that he lives in a safe neighbourhood and has steady employment, something many people on the Northern Peninsula take for granted. 

Many young people today are not interested in earning income on a part-time basis, with all their financial needs supplied by parents, and this has proved to be a problem for employers advertising for workers. 


In need of workers


Leonard Tucker, who manages the St. Anthony Tim Hortons with his wife, Hazel, says it’s not so easy to get local help anymore.

“Last month I ran ads for a full month in the Newfoundland Classifieds, the Northern Pen newspaper, the Northern Pen online, and Kijiji. I was overwhelmed with applications from the Philippines and India,” he said. “Locally, not one application was submitted.”

He says that from the first time he decided to hire Filipino employees until they were actually on the ground took about a year and a half. The four Filipinos were hired through Mercan, an international hiring agency.

“It took a lot of paperwork and a lot of time,” says Leonard. 

When his four new employees arrived in Canada, where to house them was uppermost in his mind, so to facilitate the process, he purchased a house and rents it to his employees; it’s a ten-minute walk from Tim Hortons.

Leonard stresses that all employees have the same opportunities for advancement, and when it comes to vacations, after one year each employee is entitled to two week’s holiday. He says that although family members may come from the Philippines to visit, they cannot stay unless they have a work permit.

Recently, Tim Hortons donated $100,000 to the Red Cross, which will aid in the relief effort in the Philippines.


Missing home


There are three things Arman misses most about the Philippines:  “My family, my friends, and the weather!” he laughs, looking around the store as Newfoundlanders, bundled up in hats, coats, and boots, queue up for lunch.

Outside, the snow is whirling by the window, and Arman has a far-away look in his eye. 

“Weather in the Philippines at Christmas-time averages 25-28 degrees Celsius; that’s the coldest,” he says. “Our average temperature from March to November is 30-35 degrees Celsius.  There is no winter in the Philippines.”

But, though Arman misses certain things about his homeland, he has embraced his new life in northern Newfoundland.

“What do I like most?” he asks. “I like the people. I have worked for some very strict people who are always saying, ‘You can’t do that! Don’t do that!’ Here, there is freedom.”

He says when he first arrived he was saying, ‘Yes, sir! Yes, ma’am!’ until people told him to stop.

“For us, saying sir or ma’am is just a sign or respect,” he says.


Staying in touch

On Christmas Day, although Arman won’t be home in Manila with his wife and sons, he plans to connect with his family through telephone and Skype, which will take some juggling, says Arman.

“The time zones are almost completely reversed. I will wait until 10 p.m. Christmas Eve to call them at 9:30 on Christmas morning.”

Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to his first Newfoundland ‘scoff’ and spending time with his friends and co-workers on Christmas Day.