Juanito (Jay) Tobias Ilagan, left, Heather Cooke, and Ariel Broas in Halifax in March 2019. (Photo: Eric Wynne)

Topics: June 2019, UCC in Focus | Relationships

How a United Church member and four Filipino sailors became family

United Church member Heather Cooke shares a tight bond with the men


In May 1996, four Filipino sailors walked off the Maersk Dubai vessel in Halifax harbour. They reported they had witnessed the ship’s officers force three Romanian stowaways overboard on makeshift rafts. 

As police investigations and extradition proceedings got underway, the sailors were stuck in Canada.

Heather Cooke immediately knew, from social work training and her experience with church outreach at Port Wallis United in Dartmouth, N.S., that the men were going to need help.

“I just didn’t realize it was going to go on for 23 years.”

Today, Cooke sits in her cozy Dartmouth, N.S., home, the same one where she read about the plight of Rodolpho Miguel, Ariel Broas, Esmeraldo Esteban and Juanito Ilagan.

Alongside her are Miguel, whom she calls Rudy, and Ilagan, or Jay. They’ll be back tomorrow to shovel for her after an expected snowstorm.

The two refer to Cooke as Mom.

The men’s relationship with Cooke began after they first arrived in Canada. They were living in two basement apartments, their only possessions what they had carried in their duffle bags.

“That’s probably why everyone stayed here and stayed as a real family. There is no other reason than that — we needed help.”

They had no furniture, no food, almost no money. They slept on the floor, using curtains they pulled down from the windows as blankets and their bags as pillows.

Cooke — with the help of her husband, Warren, and fellow congregants from Port Wallis and other local churches — showed up day after day at the empty apartments, bringing items the four men needed.

“That was just mom being mom,” Ilagan says.

In the time since, they’ve applied for refugee status, become permanent residents and sponsored their families to join them in Canada. 

Miguel, Broas and Ilagan made their homes in Halifax and raised their children with Cooke nearby. They’ve lost touch with Esteban over the years.

Both Miguel and Ilagan joined the Canadian Coast Guard. Miguel is retired; Ilagan is a fleet resource management specialist.

They spend holidays with Cooke every year. “I have this whole herd of grandchildren,” she says, along with her own grandkids and great-grandkids.

Cooke, whose husband Warren died in December 2016, is the one who sometimes needs help these days. And when she does, she picks up the phone and calls one of the guys.

“That’s probably why everyone stayed here and stayed as a real family,” Ilagan says.

“There is no other reason than that — we needed help.”


This story first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Ties That Bind.” For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Lezlie Lowe is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at the University of King's College in Halifax.


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