A Filipina who came to Edmonton as a temporary foreign worker and went on to win a human-rights award for her advocacy work is scheduled to be deported in July, likely bringing her six-year-old Canadian-born daughter with her if she has to go.
Evangeline (Vangie) Cayanan has lived in Edmonton since 2011. It's where she established her life and community, and where she gave birth to her now six-year-old daughter, McKenna Rose. After McKenna was born in 2015, Cayanan's application for another work permit was denied, and she has been living here without status since then.
In 2017, Cayanan and others successfully campaigned to secure health-care access for McKenna Rose and other children of non-status parents in Alberta, for which she was given a Human Rights Award from the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights, using the alias "Lynn" at the time.
Cayanan has pursued and been denied all legal pathways to stay in Canada. Now advocates are pulling out the stops to try to keep her and her daughter here.
"Vangie and McKenna are integral parts of our Edmonton community," Edmonton-Griesbach MP Blake Desjarlais said in a letter to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship. "They deserve permanent status and to remain in Canada. Our immigration policy must remain humane and sensitive to all."
In the House of Commons, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said that his department was aware of the case and would "ensure that the rules were applied fairly but also with a compassionate lens."
While Cayanan has no official status in Canada, her daughter is a citizen by birth. McKenna Rose also has severe ADHD, and advocates worry that without the behavioural therapy she is receiving – and with the stress of being removed to the Philippines – her health will suffer.
"It's very complicated because Immigration would say, yes, the child is Canadian, and that she can stay," explained Marco Luciano, the director of Migrante Alberta. "But for a six-year-old child, going through foster care because the mom is deported is also not in the best interest of the child. Essentially, McKenna is being deported with her mom. The issue is not just about deportation. It's about splitting the family – the mother and daughter – and bigger issues will come up when that happens, particularly for McKenna."
Cayanan's application to be granted residency under a humanitarian and compassionate immigration claim has already been denied, but a legal challenge deferred her original date of removal from May to July, when a final decision on her case is expected to be made.
Stories like Cayanan's are not uncommon, Luciano said. Most undocumented migrants immigrate legally but lose their status due to problems with employers or changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker program. In 2013, Alberta had 77,000 TFWs living and working in the province. Five years later, that number had dropped by 60% to 32,000, according to a report from the Parkland Institute, leaving thousands to either face removal or remain without status.
"They're good enough to work for us, but not good enough to be allowed to become citizens," said Alvin Finkel, president of the Alberta Labour History Institute. "We have to get rid of this idea of temporary work, there's really no such thing. People are coming here to do jobs. These jobs are ongoing."
Finkel pointed to the restaurant industry, where Cayanan primarily worked while a part of the TFW program, as an example of work that is ongoing, but where the workers are classed as temporary. In the current system, migrant workers are tied to a single employer, who has the power to decide whether their contracts will be extended or terminated.
"If things don't work out with that employer, then that person has to go back. So that means, for example, when a worker is sexually exploited by the employer, or is made to do dangerous work that is not legal in this country, if they refuse or they complain about it, then the employer has the perfect right to fire them and send them back home," Finkel said. "So you have women working, essentially, in sexual slavery here. You have both men and women forced to do work that violates human rights laws in this country – violates labour laws in this country. It's disgusting."
Cayanan herself reported abuse from a manager at the employer she first worked for in Edmonton, and said that female temporary workers at her location faced sexual exploitation and harassment.
There is no exact figure for the number of undocumented workers in Alberta. In 2020, the Parkland Institute put the number between 10,000 and 20,000, but Luciano said there are anecdotal projections that estimate as many as 50,000.
"Many of them have been living in Edmonton, in Alberta, for a long time – five years, 10 years, 20 years – and they are able to find jobs, to find a place to live through their own underground network," Luciano said. These networks allow people to find employment by cleaning, working in kitchens, or doing other cash jobs. Because of their status, they are again often exploited by their employers, being paid less than minimum wage and subject to abuse.
To address the precarity experienced by migrants, the City of Edmonton introduced the Access Without Fear policy in 2018, which made it easier to access city services and programs.
"The vast majority of City of Edmonton services and programs do not require proof of identification or income verification, and are accessible to all residents regardless of immigration status," a spokesperson for the City of Edmonton said. The variety of types of identification that are accepted was also expanded, and safeguards are in place to ensure the type of ID provided remains confidential.
As of May 1, Alberta signalled it was again looking to expand its reliance on temporary foreign workers, lifting restrictions and removing the nearly 500 occupations on the "refusal to process" list that limited temporary workers to select industries. The federal government has also announced it intends to make it easier for newcomers to become permanent residents, but it is unclear how this will affect undocumented people already in the country or whether it would address the churning of immigrants and deportations caused by fluctuations in existing programs.
"Whatever happens to Vangie, it's important to look deeper into this whole deportation culture," Luciano said. "There are many, many migrants here that were invited to come to Canada to work under the program, but they're not invited to stay. They cherry-pick who they want to stay. And all those that are not, they deport. Meanwhile, they open the borders for new temporary foreign workers."
In a statement to Taproot, the Department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship said that all foreign nationals are expected to maintain legal status while in Canada, and that migrant workers have the same rights to workplace protections under applicable federal, provincial, and territorial employment standards and collective agreements as Canadians and permanent residents do.
This story has been updated to include the immigration department's statement.