Reyna Santos was born on Luzon— the most populous island in the Philippines. The second of four children, her parents owned hectares of land in Central Luzon where they cultivated rice. Reyna married at a young age, and soon after gave birth to two children close to where she grew up. However, lacking opportunities in the countryside, in 2004, Reyna moved to Baguio City to attend school. With the financial assistance of her extended family, she earned a nursing degree at the University of the Cordilleras. Upon graduating, she spent a year looking for work before deciding to seek out opportunities abroad. In 2008, Reyna left the Philippines to become a migrant domestic worker in Singapore. She spent two years working for a Singaporean family with three young girls. The work was difficult. She often woke up at 4:30am to hand wash their clothes and linens before preparing the family’s meals for the day. She spent her days cleaning the apartment and caring for the baby, leaving the house only to deliver the girls’ lunches to them mid-day. In 2010, Reyna began dreaming of working in Canada but lacking the funds and experience she needed, decided to seek out opportunities in Hong Kong where her aunt was employed as a domestic worker.
Like many domestic workers, Hong Kong was Reyna’s “stepping stone” to global care work. She spent five years living in a 648m apartment in Wan Chai— sleeping on a pull-out couch in the same room as her employers’ two children. On Sundays, Reyna would attend church before gathering in a park or subway station with hundreds of other Filipino domestic workers. Travelling from across the city, the women would bring pancit, rice, and boiled chicken to share over games of cards.
By 2014, Reyna began to actively pursue her dream of moving to Canada. She stopped attending picnics, instead opting to spend her Sunday afternoons visiting nanny agencies scattered throughout Hong Kong. After saving enough of her earnings, she paid a Canadian nanny agency $150 USD to have her online profile featured in a database of nannies from around the world. Targeting Canadian families, the website boasts of “the Nanny Advantage.” Under the heading “Common Problems with Daycare,” a bulleted list reads, “Who is going to keep your house tidy? Who is going to do the laundry? What’s for dinner????.”
Within days of having a profile, Reyna began receiving requests for interviews from potential employers. Often competing against five to seven other applicants, she interviewed for a handful of positions before landing an interview with a Canadian family living in Fort McMurray. Early on a Sunday morning in September, Reyna travelled down to the nanny agency to be interviewed over Skype. The next day, she received an email offering her the position. The family in Fort McMurray then began applying for a Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) as required by the Canadian federal government under its Caregiver Program. But with her new employers not needing her until 2015, Reyna continued to work in Hong Kong for another year, saving money for the enormous expense of travel, insurance, and applications. Combined with a sizeable loan from her brother, Reyna spent around $40,000 HK for everything she needed to come to Canada.
Coming to Canada
Reyna landed in Fort McMurray in November 2015, fulfilling her seven year-long dream of working in Canada.
While she felt instantly relieved to have finally arrived, Reyna spent her first year in Fort McMurray feeling incredibly isolated from the broader community. Without reliable access to public transportation or knowledge of how to meet fellow caregivers, she spent the greater part of a year navigating the remote resource community on her own. Like many caregivers in Fort McMurray, it wasn’t until Reyna began attending church that she started to build a sense of community.
Initially, Reyna’s relationship with her employers was a positive one. She cared for two children— a seven year-old girl and an eleven year-old boy— whom she quickly became very attached to. As stipulated under Canada’s caregiver program, Reyna usually worked for 44 hours a week and was paid time-and-a-half when she exceeded 40 hours of work a week. On a typical day, Reyna would wake up at 5:30 am after both her employers had left for their jobs “on-site” in the Alberta oil sands. After preparing breakfast and dropping the kids off at school, Reyna would spend her days cleaning and grocery shopping for the family before picking the kids up from school at 3pm.
Her evenings were usually left open, allowing her to Skype her children back home or study for the mandatory IELTS exam— a Canadian government requirement for permanent residency in Canada.
For Reyna, the desire to come to Canada was always tied to the goal of living once again with her own children. After spending almost ten years apart, Canada was the only country to offer a clear path to citizenship and by extension, the prospect of family reunification.
Canada's Live-In Caregiver Program
Predicated on the notion of promissory citizenship, the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) is a federal government work program that ties caregivers to a single employer for whom they are required to work for, for a minimum of 30 hours per week often at the provincial minimum wage. In order to then qualify for permanent residency, caregivers are required to work for 24 months within a 36-month period, with any changes to their employer being deducted from this time. While the program has shifted over time— with the latest iteration not requiring caregivers to live in their employers’ homes— the basis of the federal policy remains the same. This legalized program allows the Canadian government to retain control over a disposable workforce who— like Reyna— are enticed by the promise of citizenship with no actual guarantee of obtaining status. While cast as a “win-win solution” by both sending and receiving countries, the program has institutionalized intergenerational family separation and has left caregivers vulnerable to workplace abuse and exploitation. Unexpected events, like a family illness or natural disaster, only magnify the everyday crises faced by caregivers.
On May 3, 2016, Reyna was cleaning the windows of the family’s home when she first noticed ash falling from the sky. However, knowing that forest fires were common to the region, she carried on with her duties. By 3pm she retreated to her room to change out of her soapy clothes only to notice that she had dozens of missed calls.
Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. Her employer was on the other line, telling her to pack her documents and the children’s clothes before seeing whether the neighbours were evacuating. Without having a driver’s license, Reyna stood in the window staring at the parked car in the driveway, waiting for her employer to return home. Forty-five minutes later, her employer walked through the door. Together, they packed the car before joining the thousands of vehicles attempting to leave Fort McMurray.
They headed south towards Wandering River where her employer’s husband was camping for the week. Reyna, her employer, and the two children spent seven hours in gridlock traffic on the highway before running out of gas. While Reyna was sitting in the backseat between the two kids, her employer texted her: “Message your family,” she said. “The fire is headed south.”
At 3 am, motorcyclists from Wandering River came by with granola bars and jerry cans of gasoline. They filled the tank and continued on their way. With the two kids fast asleep in Reyna’s lap, she cried softly in relief. She had never experienced a natural disaster before.
The Longer-Term Evacuation
While Fort McMurray remained under a mandatory evacuation order, Reyna spent the next month and a half criss-crossing the province with her employers. Often sharing a hotel room or a trailer bunk-bed with the two kids, her normal work schedule shifted from a 44 hour-work week to a 24/7 obligation.
Stripped of their own work, Reyna’s employers placed her on EI even though she continued to work for them. Suddenly, expenses that had been covered by her employers were downloaded onto her. After staying in the same hotel room as both children and one of her employers, she was asked to cover the expense in full. In total, Reyna was forced to pay $2,000 for food and accommodation during the evacuation despite being tied to a contract under which both are guaranteed.
The Return "Home"
Upon returning to Fort McMurray, the family went to the Red Cross to collect government assistance. Although Reyna was entitled to a cheque of her own, her employers included her as a member of their household, preventing her from receiving funds she desperately needed to send home. For Reyna, the most difficult part of the Fort McMurray wildfire wasn’t the trauma or persistent nightmares that continued for months. Rather, it was her inability to support her family from afar. Having to cover unexpected expenses without overtime pay left Reyna with no other option but to open up a second line of credit. Being placed on EI by her employers only exacerbated the situation. Although she never stopped working, on paper, she had. This one-and-a-half month leave from work thus extended the period Reyna had to work before being able to apply for permanent residency. While families across Fort McMurray struggled to regain a sense of normalcy, caregivers like Reyna were left to absorb the unforeseen shocks of a city in crisis.
The Story To Come
With close to two years having passed since the Fort McMurray wildfire, life for Reyna has yet to return to “normal.” As a result of both the fire and the pre-existing oil price collapse, one of her employers was laid-off two months following re-entry. For Reyna, it marked the beginning of a new disaster. With her employer having lost a guaranteed source of income, so did Reyna. Rather than returning to a normal routine, Reyna has become an on-call caregiver within her employers’ home. Some weeks, she is given only eight hours of work out of the legal thirty hours that she’s entitled to. But with only weeks left until she is able to apply for permanent residency, the risk of seeking out new employment isn’t worth the expense. Finding a new employer could mean months of bureaucratic delays and with family reunification within reach, it’s a cost Reyna isn’t willing to accept. Instead, Reyna relies on the charitable assistance of her friends who are also caregivers. They help buy her food, loan her money, and connect her with cash jobs that she can perform without her employers’ knowledge. Reyna has also taken out a second line of credit to cope but still, the amount of money she can remit home has dwindled.
With a boom-bust economy tied to the price of oil, Fort McMurray is host to thousands of workers for whom such precarities are the norm. Like so many others living in this remote resource community, for Reyna, the future is uncertain. She hopes her husband and children will be able to join her in Fort McMurray in the next few years. She dreams of renting a basement apartment of her own and saving up for her children to attend college or university. She’d like to work as a nurse once more but knows that her degree is unlikely to be recognized. For now, she does what she can— she takes care of her employers’ children as if they were her own. Over time, they’ve learned Tagalog and they often Skype with Reyna’s children back home in the Philippines. She hopes they can meet in person someday soon.