Labour unions: Nurse Asuncion ‘Sonny’ Arrojado was the first Filipina to head a major Canadian union

Updated:June 2, 2023, 1:36 PM


Can history be repeated?

Teodoro Alcuitas

On the sidelines of the Canadian Nurses Association’s  (CNA) annual general meeting (AGM) on June 15, 2023, it is proper that we look back at its history.

The first elected president of the CNA (then known as National Federation of Nurses’ Union) was a Filipina nurse from Manitoba – Asuncion ‘Sonny’ Arrojado who became president in 1981 after leading the Manitoba Organization of Nurses Associations (MONA). Her election was historic as she was the first Filipino to head a major labour organization in Canada.

Arrojado, a 1977 University of Santo Tomas nursing graduate , worked at the Flin Flon General Hospital from 1968-1971 before moving to St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg. She led the CNA for only one term as she left to join the Manitoba government as head of the province’s Workers Compensation Board in 1982, the first woman and first Filipino  to head the board. Records show she was a Senior Policy Advisor of the Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat in 2015.

Two Pinays are nominated to CNA Board

Victoria Casas-Alcuaz (file photo)
Victoria Casas-Alcuaz intends to build ‘bridges’. (Image: Canadian Health Information Management Association(CHIMA))
Lucy Reyes. (Photo: ARNET, Alberta Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners)
Lucy Reyes . (Photo: ARNET, Alberta Registered Nurses and Nurse Practitioners)

Arrojado’s feat 40 years ago could be repeated if either one of two Filipina-Canadian nurses will be elected during the association’s AGM on June 15. B.C.’s Victoria Casas-Alcuaz and Calgary’s Lucy Reyes are both nominated. Casas-Alcuaz has just been elected to the board of the Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Association of B.C. Both are active in their fields as well as the community and hope to contribute their skills to the advancement of Filipina nurses in Canada.

Filipino nurses dominate nursing industry in Canada

While anecdotal evidence says there are a number of Filipina nurses in Canada, no statistic is available from either government or private sources. Internationally educated Filipino nurses are the largest grouping of immigrant nurses in Canada and the U.S. , comprising a substantial part of the nursing workforce, according to BC Nurses Union.

Over 30 percent of internationally educated nurses and 85 percent of live-in caregivers in Canada are from the Philippines, according to an article by Canadian Dimension.

Nurses has been coming to this country since the 60s when the U.S. created the Exchange Visitor Program and a number of nurses whose visas expired chose to move to Canada instead of returning to the Philippines. Canada opened its doors to Philippine-trained nurses and most Canadian urban and rural hospitals employed them some directly recruited from the Philippines.
But in the early 90s, Canada closed its doors to nurses as part of the labour-tied immigration policy. Instead, it introduced the patently racist Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) in 1992,  and nurses who could not get into the country ended up in the program. The program was heavily criticized by advocates as a modern-day slavery for it’ onerous requirements. Most of the nurses who worked under the program have been de-skilled and left the profession entirely.
Until recently however, Canada has been beset with a severe lack of labourers in all fields including nurses. So it opened the door a bit and provinces are competing with each other to recruit Philippine nurses.

Nursing associations

While there is increased migration of nurses there is no one successful national organization of Filipino nurses that speaks as one voice, as our research bears out.
Several provinces have their own organizations including the Filipino Nurses Association of Quebec, Filipino Nurses Association of Ontario, Integrated Filipino Canadian Nurses Association, PNA Philippine Nurses Association of BC and the Calgary-based Philippine Canadian Nurses Association, among others.




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