My Father’s Footsteps

Helen O’Neill


Helen lost her father when she was nine years old and assumed his job of helping take care of her mother and siblings. At the age of 20, she left home alone for work in Hong Kong to support her family. When she heard about the possibilities in Canada, she persevered through poverty and immigration to help her family live a better life.


These were my dad’s slippers. Nothing fancy or too warm for the hot climate of the Philippines, just basic grey plaid, simple cushioning and comfort. He wore them any time he was home. When he was at work, I waited for him by the door at six o’clock every day to give him his slippers. I remember doing this on one warm fall night in 1972, not knowing it would be the last time I would greet him at the front door, the last time I would bring him his slippers, the last time he would put them on.

My dad had a heart attack. We didn’t own a car, so my mom and my neighbour carried him to the hospital. The glow of the streetlights was dim, so I followed close behind their hurried footsteps. I could hear the sound of my dad’s slippers drag across the ground until the sound became his feet on the pavement. The slippers had fallen off. I instinctively reached down to pick them up, my ragdoll held in my right arm and his slippers in my left. The last thing I recall from that night was the stark, cold hospital lights and my mother telling me that he was gone. I was only nine years old.

The journey of my dad’s slippers ended there. I followed in his footsteps and took on the responsibility of helping my mom raise my six siblings. From cigarettes to fruit and homemade candies, my family and I sold these goods outside the school to make a living. I managed to scrounge enough to continue my studies and apply for college. After I graduated, I worked at the Philippine Military Academy as a civilian office worker. I worked hard for two years, but the wages were not enough to support my family. I had to push myself further. To make gains, I had to take risks, so I dropped everything to work as a chambermaid in Hong Kong. I was terrified, but knowing that my dad was keeping watch from above motivated me.

I worked for six years in Hong Kong. I was 20 when I moved there on my own and did not know the language. In my last two years there, I met a Filipina woman, and we became friends. She told me that she dreamed of a life in Canada, and two years later, her dream came true. From Canada, she sent postcards encouraging me to come there.

Canada was even farther away from my home than Hong Kong. I was scared to uproot myself again, but I knew that it would provide me with a better future.

Three flights and 18 hours later, and with my entire belongings in a suitcase, I finally arrived in Calgary on May 10, 1990. I was greeted with a foot of snow, a temperature of minus 15 degrees, and a new family that I would work for as a nanny.

Becoming a citizen of Canada was one of the proudest moments in my life, followed by learning to drive here. I am happy to say I have lived in the Bow Valley for more than 30 years. I have gone from being a nanny to a salesperson, bookkeeper, manager and then mother. I met my husband in Banff, and we have two wonderful children who are now in their early twenties.

Back in the Philippines, I never could have imagined life in Canada and the amazing adventures I have experienced. I wish my dad could be here to see the life I made for myself, knowing that I did my best to make him proud.

Helen O’Neill was born and raised in the Philippines. She has lived in the Bow Valley for more than 30 years. Her passion is cooking and gardening—and like any mountain woman, hiking.

More Stories from Canmore 2021