Shortly after arriving in Canada from the Philippines in 2008, Isabel Kanaan realized she wasn’t seeing others from her community properly represented in the media.
“That’s where it all started,” Kanaan says, referring to the moment the acting bug bit her.
“When I got to Canada, I didn’t see someone like myself out there in the media …. (and) I don’t want that to be the case for future Filipino immigrants, or just future immigrants in general, that they think they can’t do it because they don’t see it.”
Now, Kanaan, an established comedian, writer and performer can also add executive producer to her CV, as she’s the co-creator and star of ABROAD, a new satirical sketch comedy premiering on April 24 at 8:30 PM EST.
“Starring and co-created by Isabel Kanaan, ABROAD presents a humorous look at how immigrants think, perceive and deal with living in this country,” according to a press release.
The series’ first season will run for 12 half-hour episodes on OMNI Television and will be produced both in English and Tagalog, the main language spoken in the Philippines. The show also boasts other Filipino-Canadian cast members including Justin Santiago, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, Joy Castro and Aldrin Bundoc.
The name – ABROAD – is a play on words with a double meaning of “going abroad, and also a broad spectrum of funnies,” Kanaan explains, adding that the show is based on her own immigrant experience – a journey that’s taken her from seeking an identity as a new immigrant to embracing one as an accomplished actor.
“I went from trying to get rid of my accent…to making roles for myself,” she says, laughing. “I am now a TV show creator here in Canada.”
The Philippines is the third largest source country of immigrants heading for Canada after India and China. According to Statistic Canada’s 2016 Census, which has the latest relevant data, out of the 21.9 per cent (7,540,830) of immigrants that made up the Canadian population that year, 588,305, or 7.8 per cent, were from the Philippines.
ABROAD aims to bring the experiences of this large diaspora to the screen by fusing Filipino and Canadian sketch comedy from an original Filipina immigrant lens.
A fusion of funnies
“Lots of Filipino comedy is very animated,” Kanaan explains. “And for the purely English, Canadian, or American sketch comedy, it’s mostly about what they are saying…their jokes. So, for ABROAD, we have the physicality of the Filipino comedy to bring it all in.”
But the successful production of ABROAD was not without its struggle, beginning with trying to convince television networks that there was an audience for it.
Kanaan has worked as a cast member in Royal Canadian Air Farce, one of Canada’s most popular sketch troupes, and she recently was an ensemble member on the latest season of the CBC sketch series, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, among others.
She has also been nominated for a Premier’s Award for “her expeditious achievements in comedy, theatre, and film/TV,” according to a press release, and was “awarded the NBC Universal Bob Curry Fellowship, one of NOW Toronto’s breakthrough stage artists of 2017.”
Yet, despite her achievements, Kanaan says many of the network heads she and her team approached had already assumed a notion of the ‘Canadian audience’ as a rural audience that would not be interested in Filipino comedy.
“So we had to kind of fight and pitch that there is the other audience in Canada,” Kanaan says. “And a big portion of it is the immigrant community.”
In the end, she says, they connected with the Toronto-based independent production company, Longhope Media Inc.
“We truly understand each other,” Kanaan says, laughing.
According to Emigrate Canada, given their high demand, actors “may be able to secure a Canadian Permanent Residency Visa either with or without a job offer.” The Canadian government’s website also shows actors may apply for work permits.
While Kanaan’s acting bug bit her after she immigrated to Canada – meaning she didn’t come through any government program – she is proud to be another voice to represent her community.
“Staying true to myself”
“I think staying true to myself is the secret that helps my show business,” Kanaan says, though she recognizes her own journey has also been littered with struggles, not least of all the “culture shock” she experienced through her readjustment period.
Kanaan was only 16 years old and had not yet had any formal acting training when she moved from the Philippines to Canada with her family, which she says contributed to the feeling of culture shock.
But rather than being bogged down by it, she says, she used it to her advantage.
“When I was first in it, I was, like, ‘get me out of here!’…(but) the culture shock actually helped me with being an actor,” she explains. “I thought, if I could deal with the culture shock, I can deal with the audience.”
Of course, job security was also a consideration. In fact, for many new Canadians, finding a job is a top-of-the-list concern and often a struggle. According to a Statistics Canada report, in 2020, 10.4 per cent of landed immigrants were unemployed that year. In 2021, the number decreased to 8.4 per cent.
But acting, Kanaan says, was something that she realized could also help her on her journey to discover her self-identity, which in turn could help her become a household name.
“When I started getting feedback that people are loving it, I realized that making myself more Canadian wasn’t actually doing me any favours,” she says.
“What did benefit me was staying true to myself.”
An immigrant at home
By observing the world from a Canadian immigrant’s perspective, Kanaan has found that her background and her identity provide her all the material she needs to produce content about her Filipino community, including their lives as immigrants in Canada and their struggle to find their place within it.
For Kanaan, it wasn’t until 2018, when she received RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrant award, that she was able to finally feel that journey had come full-circle.
“Receiving that award made me feel like Canada finally embraced me, and that I can finally call it my home,” she said in an interview with Canadian Immigrant. “Every immigrant wants to feel that we aren’t any lesser than anyone else, (that) we are all equal. And this award really celebrates that.”
ABROAD gets right to the heart of that journey through a fusion of culture, language, heart and a lot of laughs.
Season 1 of ABROAD runs from April 24 to July 10, 2022.
Chudi Xu is a journalism student completing a joint program at the University of Toronto and Centennial College. Last summer, she did an internship as a journalist in China's state-controlled media, where she learned how to conduct interviews and produce news stories, as well as how to operate and manage social media accounts.