On March 31, 2019, the Dave Dunnet Community Theater of Oak Bay High School in Victoria, B.C. was filled with the sound of gongs, bamboo poles striking against each other, the thudding of numerous feet jumping and dancing and the alternatively joyful and plaintive sounds of singing. The sounds were coming from an hour-and-a –half long cultural presentation that the Victoria Filipino Canadian Association (VFCA) was holding to mark 50 years since its founding in February 1969.
The show was preceded by a dinner-dance held at the Hotel Grand Pacific on March 30, an event attended by Filipino Canadians from all over Canada and graced by the presence of dignitaries including Philippine Ambassador to Canada Petronila Garcia, Consul-General for Vancouver Ma. Andrelita Austria, MLA-Vancouver Kensington Mable Elmore, MP-Esquimalt, Saanich, Sooke Randall Garrison and Victoria City Councillor Laurel Collins. Also present were VFCA pioneers – men and women who had been present when the VFCA was first organized, and who had guided it to incorporation and lift-off.
Ambassador Garcia traced the history of Filipino immigration to Canada, from a total of less than 800 Canadian Filipinos up to the mid-1960s, to about a million today. MP Randall Garrison talked about the contributions Filipinos make to Canadian culture and society and stated his commitment to supporting federal legislation that eases the pathway to permanent residence for Filipino workers. MLA Mable Elmore reflected on immigration as reflected in her own personal history – her mother had come to Canada from Cebu as a nurse in 1965. Councillor Collins encouraged the VFCA to tap on municipal grants for various programs and activities.
The VFCA has many reasons to celebrate. It is one of the most dynamic community organizations in British Columbia, with programs not just for Canadians of Filipino ancestry but for the Vancouver Island community as a whole. Over the years, the VFCA has worked to preserve a sense of connection with Filipino culture and traditions among Filipino Canadians in Victoria and Vancouver Island as a whole. It has done so by showcasing Filipino music and dance in community events like the Victoria Day Parade and a one-day celebration at Victoria`s Centennial Square called Mabuhay day. For many years before cost overruns led the Intercultural Association to stop its sponsorship of Folkfest in Victoria, VFCA was a key participant. The VFCA has held weekend lunches and a yearly “Fiesta” introducing the community to Filipino song, dance and food, and it has sponsored local performances by Philippine cultural groups including the Bayanihan Dance Troupe and the Madrigal Singers, as well as its own Sampaguita Dancers and Choral Group.
The VFCA has also reached out to the larger community of Victoria. VFCA regularly offers free meals to people in need through its “Feed the Needy” program. It has helped sponsor refugee families from Syria and Sudan. When fire devastated Fort McMurray in Alberta, VFCA raised funds to help the Red Cross aid fire victims, and VFCA reached out even further during the tsunami in 2004, raising funds for displaced people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. VFCA responds quickly and generously to disasters in the Philippines, conducting round-the-clock drives to collect food, clothing and cash.
Mindful that the future of the organization lies with the youth, the VFCA has started focusing on youth programs, including cultural awareness sessions, language lessons, and summer camp.
Throughout VFCA’s 50 years, volunteers have kept it going. The association’s board of directors meets to determine programs of activities and resources required. Its president and officers are elected in an annual general meeting. Board members, officers, and association members spend numerous hours preparing food, shows and other activities, with no financial remuneration. They are motivated by a sense of camaraderie, the desire to make a difference and a passion for promoting Filipino culture and values in the community.
When the VFCA started in 1969, there were fewer than 100 members. Today, there are more than 5,000 Canadians of Filipino origin in Victoria alone. The community has grown so that VFCA’s seniors have started their own organization called the Victoria Filipino Canadian Seniors Association, as have Filipinos who came to Canada on the caregiver visa (Victoria Filipino Canadian Caregivers Association). Another offshoot is the Bayanihan Cultural and Housing Society (BCHS), established by VFCA, which was instrumental in raising funds needed to purchase a building that all four organizations use as a meeting place.
The achievements of the VFCA and the BCHS have not gone unrecognized. The Filipino Canadian Cultural Heritage Society of B.C. gave the Maharlika (Nobility) Award to the VFCA in 2010 and to BCHS in 2014, for being outstanding Filipino associations in the province. Various VFCA officers and volunteers have also been recognized with the Maharlika Award for specific contributions.
The show “Our Story” at the Oak Bay High School reminded everyone that adjusting to life in a new country is not a painless process. The show opened with a Filipino nurse saying goodbye to her loved ones at the Manila international airport, a child left behind longing for his mother and newly-arrived Filipino immigrants scrubbing floors, washing dishes and caring for the sick and the elderly. These easily transitioned to a festive celebration of songs and dances that animate the Filipino spirit, wherever Filipinos may be. The VFCA is living proof of the courage, determination, resilience, and generosity of spirit of Filipino Canadians.