Nanay: Filipino word meaning “mother”

Hazel Venzon, Lissa Neptuno, and Melissa Dionoso (from left) give voice to the women who immigrate as live-in caregivers. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.

Hazel Venzon, Lissa Neptuno, and Melissa Dionoso (from left) give voice to the women who immigrate as live-in caregivers. Alex Waterhouse-Hayward photo.

More documentary than drama, Nanay, a testimonial play about the experience of live-in caregivers that concluded today at Chapel Arts, is a challenge to Canadians who think they understand Canada’s immigration system — or our child care and health care systems.

More than 22,000 women work in Canada today under the Live-in Caregiver Program, the overwhelming majority of them Filipino. They are at work tonight in countless Canadian homes, providing round-the-clock care for seniors or children whose families cannot or will not do it themselves.

Often nurses, accountants or skilled professionals in the Philippines, they join the LCP to earn the income necessary to provide their own children a better life. They are paid very little, suffer long-term separation from their own families, are vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation, and frequently fail to overcome the obstacles to their real goal of landed immigrant status in Canada. They are paying the price for our failure to create decent care for our children and seniors.

Today’s two performances at Chapel Arts were jammed. Crowds circulated from the upstairs performance area, where the audience met actors representing Canadian employers — teachers, lawyers, Yaletown career couples — to a downstairs installation that recreated a caregiver’s bedroom. This tiny room — they are often in a cold basement storage area — is complete with letters from home, calling cards, rosaries and the heart-breaking personal testimonies of Filipino women working in the program.

The audience discussion at the end of the 90-minute “performance” provoked conflicting emotions from those present, many of them Filipino. For some, including some Philippine Women’s Centre activists, the LCP is a racist program that must be scrapped. For others, including a nurse whose mother used the program to bring most of her family to Canada, it is a deeply flawed bridge to a better life that must be reformed to protect the women involved. For her, the question is “how will we treat our old people and our children and fight for them?”

A key attraction in the LCP for Filipino women is the prospect of permanent residency if they complete 24 months of work during their 36 months of LCP term in Canada. For those 24 months, they are at the mercy of their employers. Failure to complete the two years’ work means deportation. It is no exaggeration to say, as one audience member did, that Canada is “letting women come to work in modern-day slavery.”

The LCP is the template now in use by the Conservative government to reshape Canadian immigration as a temporary workforce program in which every worker is dependent on the needs and whims of an individual employer. It is the tool we are using to help those with money overcome the absence of quality public child care and seniors’ care.

The Chapel Arts performance, mounted by the Philippine Women’s Centre, was part of the PUSH International Performing Arts Festival, an  element of the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. For more, read Carlito Pablo’s assessment here.