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Filipino Heritage Month

More than food and family gatherings

Isa Carlin

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On April 30 2023, approximately 40 Filipinos and allies gathered for “Sahod Itaas! PresyoIbaba!” (Raise Wages! Lower Prices!), a panel discussion in honour of International Workers’ Day. Panelists shared stories of political struggle in Philippines and in Canada, drawing links of solidarity between the Filipino diaspora and with mainstream Canadian society.

The event was hosted by BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, or New Patriotic Alliance), an umbrella alliance of Filipino organizations representing youth, student, women and migrant worker sectors that support the political line of national democracy: an analysis of Philippine society that combats imperialism, feudalism and government corruption in the country.

Philippine history and heritage were discussed extensively at the May Day event. Perry Sorio, secretary general of MigranteBC, spoke about the history of organizing by Filipino migrant workers in Canada in response to their issues, which include cultural alienation, precarious employment and immigration status, and family separation. At Sahod Itaas!, Sorio and other activists firmly placed Filipino cultural heritage in the context of political struggle— and particularly the labour struggle.

After May Day, I sat down with Sorioto to talk more about the link between Filipino activism and heritage ahead of Filipino Heritage Month in June.

“Heritage is why we ended up here,” Sorio says.

While Filipinos have established strong communities and gained mainstream recognition in Canada, Sorio urged the diaspora to remember the conditions in the Philippines that encourage migration.

“We have to start the conversation of ‘why did you leave?’ Filipino Heritage Month is a good time to do it.”

Sorio moved from the Philippines to Toronto in 1989 and then to Vancouver in 2016 for his work as a chemical technician. Like many Filipinos who arrived in Canada during the 1970s and ’80s, he left the Philippines due to repressive conditions under the Marcos Sr. presidency. Sorio and other Filipinos during this time supported a new wave of solidarity organizing connecting Canadians with activists resisting oppression in the Philippines.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Sorio says, Filipinos in Canada formed organizations for cultural support and international solidarity “which worked closely with churches to expose human rights violations under the Marcos Sr. regime and campaign for the release of political prisoners.”

Filipinos in Canada also advocated on their own behalf on issues of labour rights, racial discrimination, and forced economic migration by forming groups like Migrante BC.

Today, issues of economic exploitation and racial discrimination persist, while new issues have also emerged. Undocumented workers such as MigranteCanada chairperson Danilo de Leon face deportation and precarious status.

Filipinos are also increasingly immigrating as international students; as of 2022, the Philippines is the second-largest source of international students in Canada (after India). According to Anakbayan Canada, a BAYAN youth organization, international students are frequently victimized by financial scams and predatory recruitment agencies that promise permanent residency in Canada while charging extortionate tuition and even providing falsified admission papers to non-existent or illegitimate post-secondary institutions.

While these conditions persist in Canada, BAYAN activists also claim that the root causes of migration haven’t changed either. In the Philippines, activism and legal dissent are frequently criminalized under counterinsurgency policies like the NTF-ELCAC (National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict) and the Anti-Terrorism Council. These agencies discredit the work of legal advocacy groups, journalists, teachers, human rights defenders, and artists by calling them fronts for the armed rebellion in the Philippine countryside, a phenomenon popularly known as “red-tagging.” According to the NUJP (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines), the Philippines is currently the seventh deadliest country in the world for journalists in mainstream and independent newsrooms alike. Poverty and unemployment rates remain high, and the Philippine economy remains relianton remittances from overseas workers.

According to BAYAN, the situation in the Philippines is a consequence of colonialism and imperialism in the country. While the Philippines is a nominally independent country today, it has a centuries-long history of colonial governance by Spain and the United States. Today, the U.S. and others continue to intervene in Philippine affairs, a recent example being the Balikatan joint war exercises between the American military and Armed Forces of the Philippines. Both the U.S. and Canada released their respective Indo-Pacific Strategies last year, promising to further entrench migration pathways between Southeast Asian countries and the global north, and to increase military aid to those governments, among other policies.

The persistence of repressive conditions in the Philippines, well-established migration pathways between the Philippines and the global north, and economic hardship and social oppression in Canada all lead Filipinos to organize collectively to better their situation here and their homeland.

So, what is Filipino heritage in this context?

While Filipino groups range widely across the political spectrum, Sorio notes the importance of uniting across these lines to advocate for change in the Philippines and in Canada, especially during times of heightened activity such as Filipino Heritage Month.

Migrante Canada and other activist groups have historically used cultural celebrations as platforms to push relevant current political campaigns, such as the campaign for the rights and welfare of caregivers. But, Sorio says, the concept of “heritage” is more than a platform for pushing political campaigns: it is itself a political issue.

“Our heritage is more than food, more than family gatherings,” Sorio says.

“I want to remind the youth of the story of two Filipino pearl divers in Australia in the 1890s who donated money to buy the first printing press of the Katipunan [the revolutionary anti-colonial Filipino organization that launched a war of liberation against Spanish colonial forces in 1896]. Even in the time of Andres Bonifacio, overseas Filipinos played a role in the fight for the independence and the liberation of the Filipino people.”

Remembering the history of political struggle in the Philippines and overseas is an important part of the community’s history, Sorio says.

The national democratic revolution that began in the 1890s is carried on today by the activists who built Filipino-Canadian organizing during the Marcos Sr. regime — and by a new generation of youth activists. The calls of the national democratic movement are calls to change the conditions in the Philippines to provide economic opportunity, end forced labour migration and celebrate a people’s history of political resistance.

“What’s your dream of liberation?” I asked Sorio. “I have no doubt that the Filipino people will triumph in their struggle for national democracy,” he says. “But joining an organization, even forming new organizations to support the Philippine revolution, that is the first part of my dream. That’s where we have to start.

“We must not be afraid to say that this is the long-term dream of the Filipino people: from the Katipunan to the present, our dream is to become free, liberated, and to create a state that can benefit the people and be accountable to the people, rather than imperialist powers.”

Filipino heritage, as Perry and other national democratic activists put it, is our people’s struggle for home.

Filed under: Viewpoint

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