What The RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards Mean To Me

What The RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards Mean To Me

This year, I’ve been named one of the 2019 winners of the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards.

I was nominated by a Filipina in the community, someone who believed deeply in our mission at Cambio & Co., and who specifically believed in me.

Of course, I feel immensely proud and grateful for this honour. But for all the pride I feel, a part of me also wants to hide away.

In fact, I actually avoided telling anyone about the award for days.

What are the RBC Awards?

The RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards is a people’s choice awards program that recognizes inspirational immigrants who’ve made a positive impact on their communities since arriving in Canada. It’s actually the first national award program in the country that specifically recognizes the achievements of all immigrants - from community advocates to cultural icons.

I was nominated alongside a nurse, a scientist, an entrepreneur, and an accomplished author. Within the other 75 finalists, there were five Filipinas, including me. I remember in my early twenties, back when I was doing my undergrad at the University of Guelph and confused about life, I would read about the award winners and think how accomplished everyone was. I hoped that one day, I would be deserving of this award, too.

Now that the day has come, my reaction is not what I expected.

Why I Didn’t Tell Anyone

It’s not that I’m not proud to receive this award. In fact, it’s BECAUSE the RBC Awards mean so much to me that I initially felt apprehensive to tell others about it.

Mixed in with my pride and gratitude are messy emotions of insecurity, anxiety, and perhaps even guilt. Do I really deserve this? Of course, technically I AM an immigrant - but I grew up here. Should I really be winning this award?

I had the privilege of youth. My parents made the difficult decision to uproot their lives in Philippines and move to Canada when I was just three years old. I didn’t struggle the way my parents did to find employment, build a new community of friends, or raise a family in a country of strangers. 

Gelaine Santiago interviewing with Dual Citizen Series Documentary
It's because of the work of Filipinos and individuals before me that there are platforms to share and celebrate Filipino stories like mine. Pictured is my interview with Dual Citizen Series Documentary.

I didn’t struggle the way many of my friends who immigrated here later have struggled, nor did I face the same challenges my older sisters did when they began attending school in Canada for the first time.

Did I struggle enough? I asked myself.

And then my husband (and Cambio & Co.’s co-founder) Jérôme asked me, “well, is that all there is to being an immigrant? Hardship?” he said. “The RBC Top 25 awards aren’t about who struggled the most. It’s about accomplishment too. And hope and dreams.” 

I began to realize that of course, this isn’t about me. I may be the one whose name will be called up on stage, but this is not an award for me. It’s for all the people who have done the work BEFORE me.

Reclaiming Our Story

2019 is the first year Canada is celebrating Filipino Heritage Month in the country and it feels like kismet that the RBC winners are announced at the same time. 

I think about the Filipino-Canadian community, and the people who worked tirelessly to make Filipino Heritage Month an official celebration. It’s because of them that stories of younger Filipinos like me can be shared and celebrated on a national platform.

I think about my parents who worked all the time when I was younger, and our kind Filipino neighbours who would offer to babysit me when my parents couldn’t pick me up from school. How our first apartment in Toronto was far too small for a family of five, but it was full of love and fond memories.

Sharing Filipino heritage and culture during Toronto's FILIPINOESQUE Pop-UpSharing the story of Filipino heritage and craftsmanship with the younger generation of Filipino Canadians during Toronto's FILIPINOESQUE Pop-Up. Photocredit Kevin Ramos.

I think about younger me and how I grew up disconnected from the Filipino community. How I spent so much of my life trying to fit in and assimilate to the white majority around me, actively distancing myself from other asians because I wanted to fit the narrow definition of what a “real Canadian” was. 

And I also think about our business, Cambio & Co. and what we want to accomplish. We want to create a space for Filipinos in the diaspora to reconnect with their roots by providing them with tangible pathways to learn about Filipino traditions and history through contemporary, ethical fashion.

We want young Filipinos to feel proud of the culture and communities they come from, and to feel like no matter where you are in the world, you are not alone. 

The RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards continues this work. And I’m proud to accept this award not only on behalf of my parents, but also on behalf of the many Filipinos out there who are sharing our heritage and culture loudly, fiercely, and unapologetically.

This award? It’s for all of us.

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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