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Against post-colonial invisibility

First Filipino-Canadian symposium tries to bridge ivory tower and community activism

TORONTO – Friday, October 23 marked the first-ever national symposium for Filipino-Canadian scholars.

Academics drawn from across the humanities and social sciences came to the University of Toronto’s (U of T) Ontario Institute for Studies in Education to discuss challenges facing Filipinos in Canada and their underrepresentation in public life despite being Canada’s fourth largest visible minority group.

“As far as I know there are only seven professors of Filipino descent across Canada,” said U of T professor Roland Sintos Coloma, symposium organizer and featured presenter.

The all-day symposium, entitled “Spectres of In/visibility: Filipina/o lives in Canada,” was organized by the Kritikal Kolektibo, a year-old research group of U of T faculty and graduate students. It featured nearly 20 presenters and performers.

As a first conversation for the Fil-Can academic community, the symposium covered a lot of ground in a short period of time, touching on political participation for migrants in Canada, representations of youth violence in the media, queer Filipino issues, and the role of the arts in community activism. The Daily caught up with a few of the presenters and participants afterwards to further explore some of the points addressed at the symposium.

Filipino migration and Canadian economic interests
The first wave of Filipino migration to Canada began in the sixties. Valerie Damasco, a U of T PhD student in the Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, discussed the findings of her Masters research on Canadian recruitment of Filipino nurses during that time. Her findings suggest Canada had a vested interest in recruiting Filipino health care professionals during the nursing shortage in the sixties.

Moreover, Damasco’s research supported the idea, echoed throughout the day’s presentations, that Canada’s economic needs drove Filipino migration to this country, not just the introduction of the point system or the political and economic crises in the Philippines
Yet coexistent with the need for Filipino labour were discriminatory practices that set barriers in their path once they got here – a paradoxical situation that reflects the conditions immigrants face today.

“The Ontario College of Nurses were very reluctant to bring over health care professionals from the Philippines,” Damasco explained. “They were more interested in bringing over nurses from Europe.”

Collective amnesia
There is a collective amnesia about the history of Filipino migration to Canada. When Damasco asked a spokesperson from the Ontario Nurse’s Association for information about the recruitment of health care professionals during the sixties, the representative replied that Filipino nurses didn’t enter the country until the eighties and nineties as domestic workers and personal support workers.

Coloma presented a paper discussing how Filipinos have been written out of Canadian history textbooks, grouped together with other Asian groups in ways that mask the conditions of Filipino life in Canada. He drew parallels between the current experience of Filipino women in the Live-in Caregiver Program and that of Black Caribbean women in the forties, fifties, and sixties, who also occupied domestic work and caregiver roles.

“If we can connect this to increasing numbers of Latinos and Caribbeans coming through temporary agricultural and service sector work, this starts disrupting certain ways we analyze race and multiculturalism in Canada,” Coloma said.

The Live-in Caregiver Program: scrap vs. review
Heated discussion followed the screening of Scrap the Live-in Caregiver Program, a documentary made by members of the Filipino-Canadian Youth Alliance, that shed light on internal divides within the community surrounding the LCP. The film documented the ripple effects that the exploitative nature of the program has for generations of Filipinos coming to Canada, including the periods of family separation involved, which contribute to young people’s difficulties integrating and high high school dropout rates.

Nora Angeles, a professor of Community and Regional Planning and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia, called for review and reform of the program rather than scrapping. “There are only so many doors to immigration into Canada. If we close this door, will there be other ones open?”

Cecilia Diocson, founder of the Philippine Women’s Centre of Vancouver, countered that the program constitutes a form of modern-day slavery.

“People don’t openly ask: is it worth it? Is the violence, is the abuse worth being able to send money to the Philippines to save their families… worth it in terms of being overworked and underpaid? … Some would say it isn’t worth it because ultimately it is about dehumanization – and others would say perhaps it’s not completely worth it, but what are the alternatives?” Coloma asked.

Toward engaged scholarship
Audience members at the symposium left thinking about how to bridge the gap between academia and the concerns of their communities.

Jennilee Austria, a school settlement worker in Rexdale-Etobicoke high schools, who focuses on helping Filipino newcomers, encouraged the academics present to support her students in the classroom, and to work with Filipino youth on a more case-specific basis.

Alex Felipe, who works with the Kapisanan Centre for Philippine Arts and Culture, as well as Migrante and Migrante Youth, thought there was a good deal of potential in Filipino-Canadian scholarship. He expressed the need for a stronger community presence at events like these, particularly reaching out to more live-in caregivers. “Academia, when it’s done well, speaks for the people. It compiles the voices of the people in a manner that’s suitable for academics and scholars, but it’s still the voice of the people,” said Felipe.