Lyane Cypress-Zepik remembers that when she moved to Neepawa from the Philippines in 2009, she was one of just a handful of temporary foreign workers working at Springhill Farms, the local pork packing plant at the time.
“There was only 21 TFW [temporary foreign workers] from the Philippines and probably about 20 people that were already here. So there is less than 50 of us here,” she said.
Now, HyLife, which purchased Springhill Farms in 2008, is the single biggest employer in the Manitoba town, about 170 kilometres west of Winnipeg.
The pork processing plant currently has over 1,700 employees, about 70 per cent of whom identify as Filipino, according to HyLife.
The executive director of Neepawa Settlement Services says the growth in the community over the last 10 years is staggering.
“You take a look at a community that had a stable population for 70 years, and then suddenly through industry-related reasons, you’re starting to see newcomers moving into the community,” said Dave Walmsley, whose non-profit agency is funded by the federal Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and provides English language training and other settlement services.
Neepawa’s population is now 5,685, a 23 per cent jump from 4,609 in 2016, according to Statistics Canada’s 2021 census data.
The town is the third-fastest growing in Manitoba (behind only Niverville and West St. Paul) and the 13th-fastest in Canada.
Ethnic origin information isn’t yet available for the 2021 census, but the 2016 census showed Filipinos made up Neepawa’s largest visible minority population, with a total of 1,635 people, or about 93 per cent of the town’s total visible minority population.
Cypress-Zepik says it’s because of that immigration boom that she’s been able to organize festivities for two years in a row to mark Filipino Heritage Month in June. This year’s festival on June 18 drew hundreds of people to the day-long celebration, she said.
“It was a really big event,” Cypress-Zepik said. “We have very good support from the town, from the community, and we have a great committee.”
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Carmela Comila has made the move to Neepawa from Winnipeg, where she first lived after coming from the Philippines in 2004 as a caregiver.
In 2019, after visiting the town twice and seeing the growing Filipino population, she decided to move to Neepawa with her family and open Lola’s Bakery and Restaurant.
“I’ve seen that there are lots of Filipinos in here — it’s just like a little Philippines,” said Comila. “There was no Filipino restaurant, there was no Filipino bakery, and I think the Filipinos need that.”
Now, Comila, along with her husband, son and daughter-in-law, serve Filipino specialities — like ube pandesal buns and silog, a traditional Filipino breakfast with garlic rice and fried egg — to Filipinos and others in town.
“You’re living like in the Philippines. You hear them talk Tagalog,” she said. “You serve them with Filipino foods, Filipino bakings, and that’s already made you feel like living in the Philippines.”
Zennie Aguilar moved to Neepawa in 2021 from the Philippines, where she was a dentist.
Her credentials aren’t recognized in Canada, though, so now she’s taking classes, including an English language class offered by Neepawa Settlement Services, before a move to Calgary next month for dentistry school.
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“What I like in Canada, particularly in Neepawa, is I thought it was just like the Philippines, because there are so many Filipinos,” she said.
“Neepawa is a friendly place. Everyone is greeting you ‘good morning’ or something, so it’s very nice and less stress.”
Neepawa Mayor Blake McCutcheon says the Filipino community has brought a new-found vibrancy to the town, and he’s learned a lot about the Philippines thanks to the influx of newcomers.
It’s taken Neepawa residents time to adjust, he said, but many have been celebrating alongside Filipinos, especially during Filipino Heritage Month.
“They love celebrations, they love their birthday parties and they like getting together. They’re a very social part of our fabric, of our town, and it’s been great in that respect, but it’s been a learning curve.”
Carmela Comila says she’s fallen in love with Neepawa and doesn’t see herself living anywhere else.
“Neepawa is beautiful, and the people, they’re very friendly and welcoming and supportive.… I keep on saying supportive because, yes, that’s what they are.”
Cypress-Zepik agrees that the growing community, as big as it is, is close and supportive.
“We have built relationship with friends and the community,” she said. “Neepawa has become a family for us.”