It’s January 2019. Perhaps we should act and relate with one another as if we were living in the present day. What am I talking about? I’m talking about Canada’s race problem. Last month, racism came close to home, to the Filipino community. A supervisor from Alberta Health called her Filipino staff “My Little Monkeys”. One staff member, Lito Velasco asked his fellow co-workers if they wanted to bring the issue to their union. They refused.“She already apologized naman na, bro,”one of them said. Velasco is an active union member and a leader in the Filipino community. He is also the Editor-In-Chief of this community paper.
Velasco went to his union representative and he was told, “If you have no proof about that, I suggest you just don’t bring that up because that would be resulted to [sic] termination”. He continued, “My steward also told me that all of us will be terminated in the event we failed [sic] to provide proofs [sic] and for propagating such an allegation”.
On December 31st Evelyn Holowach, the supervisor involved, sent a letter to her staff saying that one of her team members took offence to her comment “My Little monkey”. “This was only meant in a fond manner and was not meant to insult anyone,” she added.
Racism in Canada
Canada may be a land of immigrants, but it is not a country open to just any migrants and refugees. The waves of migration have corresponded with the economic, political and ideological needs of Canada — relatively open when the system is in expansion or in a period of growth and repressive and closed when in crisis, as it currently is. And this reflects the general ideas of white middle class Canadians. In Alberta, during the height of the crackdown of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program,groups such as Canadians Against the Temporary Foreign Worker Program started to spontaneously organize. This came out when the Alberta economy spiraled downwards. While they were critical of the TFW Program, they are also going after workers, which consisted mostly Filipinos for “stealing Canadian jobs”.
In particular, here are some historical examples of racism and the migrant and immigrant experience in Canada: First was the Chinese experience. Original Chinese settlers, mostly poorer peasants from southern China first arrived in the 19th century. When the Canadian government decided to build a cross-Canada railway, it went in search of cheap, hardworking labour. Thousands of Chinese were brought in to build the most difficult and dangerous sections through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It was said that at least one worker died for every mile of track laid. When the railway was completed, the government decided it no longer wanted the Chinese and imposed a Head Tax on Chinese wanting to migrate to Canada. This was raised to $500 by 1904, which totaled to $23 million taken from the Chinese immigrants through the Head Tax. It was also documented that the Canadian government gave $23 million to the Canadian Pacific Railways to help build the railway — that would mean that the Chinese not only built the railway across Canada, they helped pay for it. Other Asian communities have also faced racism and discrimination. The Japanese in Canada had all their properties and belongings removed from them during WWII, simply because they were of Japanese descent. In truth, many of them had been born in Canada and had never even been to Japan. Sikhs escaping discrimination at home attempted to land on the West coast of Canada in the early 20th century, only to be turned away with many dying as they head back to their country as a result.
Racism is, of course, not unique to immigrants and refugees. There’s an overwhelming sense of racism against the indigenous peoples, the supposed caretakers of the Turtle Island or what we know as Canada. Even Filipinos have their own discriminatory biases against First Nations people. They oftentimes parrot the populist conservative rhetoric that “these people are lazy and drunk”.
As Canada goes deeper into the economic crisis, migrants, immigrants and refugees will be scapegoats who will be blamed for the crisis. The populist knee jerk reaction would be “close the borders” or “stop immigration”. It was support for this train of through that won ultra conservative politicians like USA’s Donald Trump, Ontario’s Doug Ford, Quebec’s François Legault the election. I would not be surprised if that same message takes Jason Kenny to office next election. They attract the popular racist message. Are Filipinos going to allow this?
Filipino diaspora and racism
“Monkeys” or “Little Monkeys” have been commonly used as a racial slur. The children’s popular rhyme “five little monkeys jumping on the bed” has its racist roots. According to one website, the early version used the “N word” or “darkies”. Monkeys continue to be used as an offensive referent to Black people.
Filipinos have been called many things as well. “Tailless monkeys” was originally used by American soldiers in the Philippines from the time of the American colonization until the time when the Americans were stationed in Subic Naval Base. And then there is “FLIP” which was also traced to the times of the American colonization. It stands for “Fuc**n’ Little Island People”. Another American military slang was LBFM, which was used in reference to Filipinas or Asian females as “Little Brown Fuc***g Machine”. And there are many more racial slurs Filipinos at home and abroad are called.
The first generation Filipinos pride themselves on being hard workers. However, Filipinos in general are being stereotyped to perform specific roles in different countries– most of which are considered low-skillor low-wage work or employment. In Canada, the general population sees Filipinas as nannies. It is true that many Filipinos came to Canada under the Live-in Caregiver Program over the last twenty-five years. We are also seen as McDonalds or Tim Hortons’ workers, who arrived in the last fifteen. However, these are not the only professions that define us.
This generation of Filipinos in Canada are more conservative and passive in dealing with their own experiences in racism. Often the attitudes were “bahala na” or “it’s ok, we’re only immigrants here”. There’s the “magpasalamat nalang tayo (let’s just be thankful)”, the famous “Bahala na ang diyos sa kanila (God will take care of them)” and of course the response of one of Velasco’s coworkers when he asked to take the issue to their union, “Wag na, nag-sorry nanaman (it’s ok she already said she’s sorry)”. These attitudes are very deeply and ingrained in colonial roots. If the role was reversed and Velasco said something discriminatory to Ms. Holowach and he said sorry afterwards, do you think she would let Velasco go that easy? Velasco sited an example “eh bat ako pag nagkamali, kahit nag apologize na ako sa kanya, makakatanggap pa rin ako ng demand letter from her and HR (If I made a mistake and apologized I would still receive a demand letter from her and HR).”
These attitudes also reflect the limited number of documented cases of racism in the community. There are not many-reported incidents of racism in the Filipino community. Many fear the backlash and stigma that is attached to it. When searched online, there were more articles that show how Filipinos are racist. Again, Filipinos tend to copy the attitudes and language of their colonizers. Thus, the term “colonial mentality” is very much present in the Filipino discourse.
Racism is an ideological and political concept that considers that some are higher on the developmental and intelligence scale than others — it is an offshoot of the class system and has been developed to explain, theorize and legitimize the colonization. It legitimizes the conquering of one race by another, of one people by another and controlling and exploitation of one country by another. For the Filipino diaspora, racism is an integral part of the process of migration. Racism was at the heart of the system of colonialism and semi-colonialism that subjugated the majority of the people of the world to the prescriptions of a few northern countries. In Canada, racism also guides Canadian foreign policies around migration and immigration and it is also used as a divide-and-rule tactic once migrants have entered the country, leading them to work in homes, in the fast food industry or factories.
Understanding the causes of migration and the nature of the capitalist system is key to helping empower migrants and immigrants oppose racism and racist laws and policies. It will not, however, be eradicated as long as the present global economic exploitative system continues to exist.
The initiative of the current NDP government is a good step in addressing the issue of racism. The comprehensive plan started by immediately creating an advisory committee that will continue to work for the advocacy and a grant to communities to support their anti-racism projects.
Meanwhile, the issue at Velasco’s work is far from resolved. Asked how he felt when he heard of the incident, he said “It was not said in my presence, but I really felt bad! I felt discriminated! I felt disrespected”. He is determined to pursue the issue “ to defend those who cannot assert their rights”.