A new play based on the words of Filipino live-in caregivers reveals the human costs of a controversial federal program
The Filipino word nanay sounds so much like nanny that it’s easy to assume they mean the same thing. Close, but not quite.
Nanay means “mother”. It’s also the title of a play about the Canadian government’s Live-in Caregiver Program, which brings thousands of moms—most of them Filipino—to Canada to work as nannies.
“I was drawn to the word in part from one of the interviews that we did years ago with a woman who was in the LCP at that time, and she said, ”˜I’m not just a nanny. I’m also a nanay,’ ” recalled Geraldine Pratt, a UBC geography professor and the principal author of Nanay: A Testimonial Play. “She was the first person that made that link for me, and it was such a captivating statement.”
One of the featured shows in this year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Nanay uses a script lifted verbatim from interviews Pratt conducted during more than a decade of her ongoing research on the LCP. As such, it consists mostly of monologues based on the words of nannies, members of Canadian families that employ them, and agents who broker the deals.
Pratt’s academic work focuses on labour and women’s issues. Nanay, she said, puts caregivers and their Canadian employers in a “cross-cultural communication” as a way to explore the issues surrounding the caregiver program.
Pratt noted, for example, that in the absence of a national child-care program, many Canadian families are left with no choice but to hire foreign nannies. Likewise, source countries—the Philippines, in particular—encourage women to seek employment abroad, at the cost of their own families.
Under the LCP, caregivers are required to live with their employer, a condition that leaves them vulnerable to abuse. They must remain in the program for 24 of the 36 months of their temporary work permit before they can apply for permanent residency. Only after a change in their residency status can they seek to bring their families over. Typically, this process of reunification takes at least five years.
For many Filipinos, the program offers an alternative route to Canada, a country that would otherwise be closed to them because of the income and education requirements involved in applying for permanent residency while in their home country.
The LCP “is really a complicated program, and it’s difficult to make a quick assessment of it, so you have to listen closely to people’s stories,” Pratt explained. “We don’t see a lot of what’s going on, like that period of family separation. It [Nanay] is an attempt to put Canadian employers in a kind of tension and conversation with the domestic workers that they hire.”¦and also to get Canadians to think much more seriously about the issues of social justice around the program.”
Pratt believes that a better understanding of the caregiver program is important, as more and more women are coming to Canada to work as nannies.
Figures compiled by Université de Montréal researcher Eugénie Depatie-Pelletier indicate the number of people holding work permits under the LCP increased by more than 300 percent between 2000 and 2006. Depatie-Pelletier’s draft study on temporary workers, which was provided to the Straight by Pratt, showed that 5,942 people held LCP permits in 2000. By 2006, that number had increased to 21,489.
Nanay director Alex Ferguson said he became interested in Pratt’s research on the caregiver program because of its social content. “As a theatre artist for 20 years, I was feeling that the work we were doing was not engaged with the issues of the day—the civic issues and the larger issues,” Ferguson told the Straight by phone. “And I thought, ”˜Why is theatre really having nothing to say, other than talk about the interior life of the individual?’ ”
In 2002, he directed The Birth of Freedom, a play about a halfway house for the mentally ill. It was an examination of how these people were being affected by the B.C. Liberal government’s cutbacks to social services.
For some time, Ferguson had wanted to create a piece along the lines of works by the London, England–based Tricycle Theatre, whose so-called tribunal plays use transcripts from court proceedings like the Nuremberg Trials.
Ferguson became aware of Pratt’s interviews through his friend Caleb Johnston, a PhD student who was being supervised by the professor. “Once I got to understand the scope of the issue, how big it was, I thought, ”˜This is something that we can put ourselves in service to as theatre artists,’ ” Ferguson explained.
Johnston, who eventually cowrote the play with Pratt, is also the artistic director of the Urban Crawl Performance Society, which developed the play in collaboration with the Vancouver-based Philippine Women Centre.
In a phone interview, PWC vice chair Denise Valdecantos argued that the caregiver program not only exploits nannies but also provides an easy way for the Canadian government to avoid providing universally accessible childcare, as well as programs that support the elderly. The centre has long advocated the abolition of the LCP.
Pratt has worked extensively with the centre to raise awareness of the plight of caregivers.
“The PWC and I were always looking for ways of getting our research out in different ways, in more popular ways,” she said. “And so the idea of doing a play was really attractive.”
Nanay runs at Chapel Arts (304 Dunlevy Avenue) from February 4 to 8.