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Filipino grocery store in Whitehorse shuts down

Whitehorse's only Filipino grocery store has shut down due to competition from big retailers and a lengthy investigation into the store's participation in a program that places foreign workers in Yukon businesses.

Whitehorse’s only Filipino grocery store has shut down due to competition from big retailers and a lengthy investigation into the store’s participation in a program that places foreign workers in Yukon businesses.

The Asian Central Store, which included a Filipino and Chinese restaurant, opened in January 2012.

Owner Ailene Gayangos said her store provided a unique service to Whitehorse’s growing Filipino community, which she now estimates at over 3,000 people.

“I know the feeling of being away and not having your comfort food,” she said. “Living in an isolated area, it’s always my passion to bring food… and bring the flavour here.”

Gayangos said when she arrived in Whitehorse in 1989, there were maybe 20 or 30 Filipinos in town and it was almost impossible to find ethnic food. She opened her store to fill the gap, and stocked it based on customer requests.

“Most of the time, with other immigrants… I will ask them to bring their container or spices that they would like me to look into, so I will try bringing it to them. So that made it really special,” she said.

But nowadays, Superstore and other retailers are offering more and more specialty foods, and Gayangos is finding it hard to compete. She said her business has not been profitable, due to the high costs of rent, maintenance, and transportation.

Gayangos relied on foreign workers to keep the business going. She hired most of her employees through the Yukon Nominee Program, which places prospective immigrants in Yukon businesses and gives them the opportunity to become permanent residents.

“It’s really hard to get locals, even local Filipinos to work in our establishment,” she said. “Some of them are working in government, or in the private sector, and we cannot compete with the salary.”

But in May 2014, Gayangos received a letter that a community complaint had been filed against her business with the Department of Education, which oversees the Yukon Nominee Program. She said she doesn’t know who filed the complaint, or what it concerned.

The Department of Education launched an investigation in response to the complaint. While the investigation was ongoing, Gayangos was not allowed to hire any new workers through the Yukon Nominee Program.

Gayangos said what followed were months of confusion and poor communication from the government. In response to a request from Gayangos and her business partner, Mike Buensuceso, the Department of Education sent them an email in September 2014 informing them that the investigation had been forwarded to the Canada Border Services Agency for review. The email included an apology for having failed to keep them updated.

“We should be communicating regularly with you and have clearly failed to do so to date,” it read.

Over the next few months, Gayangos and Buensuceso received several email updates from the Department of Education telling them that the CBSA’s investigation was ongoing and would likely be complete by the end of the year. Then, in January 2015, they received another email stating that the investigation was still ongoing.

“We were informed by the Canada Border Services Agency that their offices planned to complete their investigation by the end of 2014. However, we are now told it will take longer,” the email read.

Gayangos contacted Member of Parliament Ryan Leef for help this spring. On June 5, Leef forwarded her an email response from the CBSA, stating that “the CBSA does not currently have an investigation into the Asian Central Store.”

However, Gayangos subsequently received a response to an access-to-information request she’d filed with the Department of Education. She was told her request was denied, “as the requested records are all related to an ongoing investigation.”

Gayangos said no investigator ever showed up at her business or questioned her.

She said the combination of financial difficulties and staff shortages caused by the investigation eventually became too much for her. A month ago, she decided it was time to call it quits.

“You’re feeling kind of helpless,” she said. “For me, I feel that there’s some kind of rights as an employer that were compromised and there was no disclosure and there was no proper due process.”

In an email statement to the News, a spokesperson for the Department of Education declined to comment on the specifics of this case. But he said the department has undertaken eight formal investigations under the Yukon Nominee Program since 2010, and that four more investigations are ongoing.

He also said investigations typically take “a few weeks,” but can take longer if the case is referred to an external agency like the CBSA. He confirmed that applications for new workers are not processed while an investigation is ongoing, but noted that “there is nothing restricting the employer from hiring local workers.”

Genibeth Genito, a Yukon Nominee who’d worked at the Asian Central Store for just over a year when it closed on Tuesday, said there were times when the job was “crazy busy” because of the lack of staff.

But she also said this job helped her feel comfortable in Whitehorse.

“Pretty much the majority of the community goes here, so you’re able to connect,” she said. “For a newbie like me, it’s important that you’re able to be in familiar surroundings.”

Genito now has 90 days to find another job so that she can keep her place in the Yukon Nominee Program. She said she’s worried, but she’s glad the store closed in the summer, as job prospects are better now than during the winter months.

Still, for Genito and others in the Filipino community, the loss of a cultural hub is a real source of concern.

Aileen Maningas, vice-president of the Canadian Filipino Association of the Yukon, said the Asian Central Store offered much more than groceries and authentic cuisine.

She said community meetings and events were often held there because the Filipino community doesn’t have its own cultural centre. And in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, the Asian Central Store collected donations to send back to the Philippines.

“Ailene and her staff had to go the extra mile because we didn’t pay them,” she said. “I’m really sad about it because it has become part of our life within the Filipino community.”

Contact Maura Forrest at