TORONTO -- As Canada roll outs the first COVID-19 vaccines to front-line workers, pride is washing over the Filipino community. But advocates say a true show of appreciation would involve the government doing more to protect them.

Three of the first five people in the country to be inoculated were Filipino-Canadian, but that’s hardly a surprise as, for decades, this community has been an integral part of Canada’s health care system.

When he was receiving his inoculation last week, registered practical nurse Lucky Aguila admitted he wasn’t thinking of the significance to the Filipino community.

“But I’m honoured to be one of the first,” told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday. Back in May, he began working in the Rekai Centre long-term care homes in Toronto – thrown into the middle of an outbreak.

“I’ve seen [the larger] need for long-term care in nursing,” he said, recalling working grueling double shifts to ensure patients were always tended to. “They need more care, mostly because their families aren’t with them most of the time.”

Sharing in that Filipino pride is his colleague, Bena Artates, a longtime registered practical nurse, who was also one of the staff inoculated. She knows firsthand of the hardship the virus can inflict.

Testing positive for COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, Artates spent months recovering. So she’s grateful that because of the vaccine, she’s unlikely to go through it again.

“For me, I was willing to take it for the safety of myself, my family, my residents, my patients and the whole community,” she told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday. “As long as we have this opportunity, you should take it.”

1 IN 20 HEALTH CARE WORKERS ARE FILIPINO

Although Filipinos only make up 1.2 per cent of the Canadian workforce, about one in 20 total health care workers in the nation are Filipino, according to one study.

A third of internationally-trained nurses in the country are from the Philippines, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information; with Filipinos making up 90 per cent of migrant caregivers providing in-home care under Canada’s Caregiver Program.

“I believe we get it from our values and our cultures,” Aguila said, adding that the values in the Filipino communities “reflect in our nursing care, which we convey compassionately and ethically to our patients and it contributes to a stronger health care system for Canadians.”

HISTORY OF FILIPINO WORKERS IN CANADA

“In general, we should be proud that so many of us are in the position to be on the front-lines in times of crisis,” Philippine Women Centre of Ontario volunteer and organizer Charie Siddayao told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.

Because so many front-line workers are Filipino, she said it was “inevitable” they’d be first up to get inoculated.

“But at the same time, we should be able to expose a lot of the things that are lacking for us to be able to do our jobs properly,” Siddayao said.

Widespread labour shortages in nursing during the 1950s and 1960s prompted the Canadian government to accept more Filipino nurses to work here, she explained. Siddayao mentioned skilled workers from Jamaica were also part of that initial wave allowed to work in Canada.

“There was a need for doctors and nurses and other professional fields at that time, [and] Canada was accrediting people coming in,” Siddayao said.

But that steady flow of workers was tamped down during the 1980s and the 1990s, when these same types of workers, no longer had their nursing accreditation accepted by the government. A problem that Siddayao’s group has been trying to remedy.

For decades, the Philippine Women Centre of Ontario has helped skilled nurses trained from the Philippines pass nursing exams here, so they’re able to practice in Canada.

“But the contradiction is that they (the Canadian government) refuses to recognize their experience and their training,” Siddayao said, explaining that especially during a pandemic, the need for that to change is even more urgent.

FILIPINO WORKERS NEED MORE PROTECTION

A lack of worker protection is also cause for concern.

Medical outlets such as Stat News reported that in the U.S., COVID-19 has taken an “outsized toll” on mental and physical well-being for Filipino front-line and care workers. Manila-based outlet Rappler reported that Filipino workers in Canada -- who, because of mandatory stay-at-home policies, have been forced to live with employers – experience anxiety worrying about their health and keeping their jobs.

In October, the Migrant Rights Network also released a report documenting the fear of migrant workers who feel trapped staying in their work homes but who can’t advocate for better working conditions because, if they are fired, they can’t stay in Canada.

The progressive Broadbent Institute published a piece by York University politics Assistant Prof. Ethel Tungohan, who called on Canada to “assess how labour and immigration policies combine to create greater precariousness for Filipino migrant healthcare workers during COVID-19.”

Siddayao added onto these issues saying, “this pandemic has really exposed the gaps in the health care system,” which included staff shortages, insufficient wages and lack of resources – all of which Filipino workers experienced disproportionately.

“If we want to recognize these workers beyond (after) the pandemic, we need to remind the government that we need to tackle these issues,” she said.

The people who would benefit from those changes include nurses like Aguila and Artates, who tirelessly taking care of Canada’s most vulnerable.

They both strongly encourage everyone to get the vaccine, as soon as it’s available to them. The former called it an “extra layer of protection”

“You don’t have to be scared. This is for your protection. It’s one step closer to decreasing the spread of this virus,” Aguila said, adding that as front-line workers they’ve seen up-close how it debilitates victims. “And it’s scary.”