‘Pioneer’ carved new life in city

Fe Ryder shows photographs of her first encounter with Winnipeg snow 50 years ago. Ryder was one of the first four nurses from the Phillipines to come to Manitoba and stay. (KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Fifty years ago, four nurses were the first "pioneers" from the Philippines to come to Manitoba and stay.

Today, just one of them is still around.

Fe Ryder is still nursing, and newcomers are still arriving from the Philippines, adding to the province's largest visible minority community.

"We showed them we're qualified to do the nursing," said Ryder, 74. "We were the stepping stone for nurses who came later to the Misericordia, St. Boniface, the Health Sciences Centre -- they were all over."

The petite dynamo nurses part-time, golfs, cross-country skis and bowls 10-pin in a league with her Canadian-born husband.

They play in the "Mabuhay" league with friends in the Filipino community, which numbers 37,790 in Manitoba, according to the 2006 census.

Ryder and three other Filipino nurses came to Winnipeg by way of Rochester, Minn. They had two-year visas to work and learn at St. Mary's Hospital there. At the end of the two years, they had to exit the U.S. but could reapply if they wanted to return. Near the end of their term, a nun who was a dietitian from Winnipeg also in Rochester told them Misericordia Hospital needed nurses.

"I didn't know much about Canada," said Ryder.

They headed north to Winnipeg, in spite of their American colleagues' warnings.

"They said 'Why Winnipeg in Manitoba? It's cold up there!,'" Ryder laughed. "That didn't scare me at all."

They arrived in Winnipeg by train at the end of November, 1959, and went to work.

"They accepted us, and I've worked there ever since," said Ryder, who retired in 1993, then went back to work part-time. A lot has changed in the burgeoning Filipino community since she arrived half a century ago. There are more professionals, more people elected to political office and more Filipino organizations, which are finalizing the details for 50th anniversary events being planned throughout the year.

What hasn't changed is the strong sense of empathy those who are already settled have for the newcomers, said Ryder.

She recalls Filipino doctors and nurses helping out the wave of garment workers who came in 1968 and others who came later.

She was the first Filipino to get married in Manitoba. Dr. Roland Guzman, the former Philippines consul and medical doctor, gave away the bride.

She thinks the adaptability of newcomers is key to their success in making Manitoba home. Ryder has been adapting since she realized nursing wasn't glamorous when she was training in Manila and told her parents she wanted to quit university.

Her father enticed her into staying in nursing school by promising her a trip to America.

The young adventurer was enamoured with Hollywood movies and magazines and went off to Rochester, Minn. for a two-year nursing stint.

In Winnipeg, she worked as an operating room nurse in the Catholic Misericordia Hospital.

One of the first things she did was look for a church, taking a taxi to the cathedral in St. Boniface where she discovered everyone spoke French.

"I didn't know how to get back."

She joined St. Mary's Cathedral downtown, where she met her husband-to-be, Cecil. At the time, her family in the Philippines did not approve of her marrying an "American."

"My father sent me a ticket to get home," said Ryder.

There was a lot of resentment in the Philippines at that time towards U.S. servicemen posted there, and her parents didn't differentiate between Canadians and Americans.

Her husband's family was another story, she said.

"If I had sensed any prejudice or anything, I would not have married him. But they were so good to me," she said of Cecil's family.

In fact, in the last 50 years, pretty much everyone in her new home has been good to her, she said -- another reason she stayed.

"It was my fate."