Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Engage in politics, not frivolities

Four months from now, the Filipino community in Toronto will be abuzz again with festivals commemorating Philippine Independence Day. Filipinos will come out in droves to join the parades of beauties and beasts, the latter being roasted pigs or lechons. In addition to parades, there will also be singing and dancing contests, picnics in the parks, and trade shows. At least three major community organizations, just in the city of Toronto alone, will hold separate Independence Day celebrations, as if a common observance is inadequate to embody the collective aspiration of the Filipino people to be free from colonial rule.
Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) presents the winners of the Filipino Singing Idol contest
 during the Philippine Independence Day celebrations at Toronto City Hall. Click link
to view, "Pinoy Fiesta Toronto."

If only this huge annual coming-out event by Filipinos in the biggest Canadian city could be an accurate gauge of our participation in civic, community and political events, then we could say that Filipinos in Canada, or at least in the city of Toronto, constitute a powerful political force to reckon with. That’s why these Independence Day festivals are attended by Canadian politicians, federal, provincial and local, those in office, those running in the next election, and political wannabes. And one could also probably say that Filipinos, by their sheer number of close to 250,00o in the metropolitan area, are well represented in the city and provincial governments.
The sad truth, however, is either we are disinterested in politics or our divisive nature has failed us miserably to send at least one Filipino in Toronto’s city council or in Ontario’s provincial parliament. But this is not the case in the West where we have elected Filipinos in parliaments in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba. Manitoba has also sent to the federal Parliament the first and only Filipino Member of the House of Commons.
But wait; let’s not be too quick to put down Filipinos in Toronto. We just have a Filipino senator in Canada’s Parliament, even if he wasn’t elected. Responding to an interview hours after his appointment was announced, the new senator said: “I was completely shocked when they told me about the appointment. I couldn’t believe that this was happening.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose Tobias “Jun” Enverga as one of the senators to represent the province of Ontario, albeit without a real and a natural constituency. Before this appointment, the newly-minted senator was elected a school trustee in his first attempt to run for office, though with no memorable record to speak of. Not even his political stand or opinion on the issues of the day is known to many, other than being an active supporter of the ruling Conservative Party.
Of course, Mr. Enverga’s charitable works speak volumes for him in the community. He was a former president of Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC), the supposed umbrella organization for all festivals commemorating Philippine independence in Toronto, and founder and adviser to Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF), a rival organization that also holds similar Independence Day festivities. The new senator is on the record saying: “I always advocate for charity wherever I go. So for every organization I join, I make sure they have a cause to build on–not just social and cultural, they should also be a charity. It’s important because we’re so blessed here in Canada and we should share all the time–have fun and share.”

Senator Tobias "Jun" Enverga, only Filipino senator in Canada's Parliament.
Click link to view interview
of Mr. Enverga after his election as school trustee, "A Voice for Toronto's Visible
Minorities," by FilipinoWebChannel.
Now, who’s to question the motives of the Prime Minister if that singular devotion to charitable causes is not enough to qualify one to become a senator?
Canada’s Senate has been plagued with problems in the past and is currently under siege from the opposition parties and the public in general. Its relevance to Canada’s democratic process is once again under scrutiny with the most recent expulsion from the Conservative caucus of Senator Patrick Brazeau who was charged with domestic assault and for bringing to the Senate a string of negative news, from controversial expense claims to mental incompetence. Another senator from Prince Edward Island, former television journalist Mike Duffy, is also on the hot seat for reportedly claiming living allowances for senators from out-of-province, even though he apparently lives in the Ottawa-area where he also votes. Both senators were appointed by Mr. Harper.
The Canadian Senate is a house in great disarray. Poll surveys have indicated that majority of Canadians would rather want the Senate be abolished or senators be elected instead of allowing the Prime Minister to choose and appoint them, usually on the basis of political patronage.
Senator Patrick Brazeau was removed from caucus by the Conservative Party
after his arrest in Gatineau, QC. Photo by Chriss Wattie/Reuters.
It’s therefore disturbing to hear a group of Filipinos in Toronto who feel offended by those who criticize the appointment of Mr. Enverga to the Senate, as if being a senator in Canada is comparable to an elected senator in the United States or Philippines. They claim the appointment is a boost to the image of the Filipino in Canada. To put down Mr. Enverga, they said, “demeans and ridicules individual Filipino achievers and sets back community-building efforts and is not in the best interests of the Filipino community in Canada.”
In announcing the appointment of Senator Enverga, Prime Minister Harper highlighted Mr. Enverga’s “broad range of experience and dedication” to the Filipino community, which he said will further strengthen the Senate and benefit the entire country. Didn’t Mr. Enverga say he was an advocate of charitable work? Beyond raising funds for the benefit of a medical mission in his home province of Quezon in the Philippines, Mr. Enverga has not done anything significant, for example, in helping newly-landed Filipinos resettle and find employment opportunities, or reducing gang violence among Filipino youth or advocating for better working conditions for Filipino domestic caregivers or access to the professions by trained Filipino graduates. He is clueless on significant political and social issues, and has been conspicuously absent in efforts by some Filipino groups in a broad range of social advocacy issues in the province. His only foray in politics was his election as a school trustee two years ago, but even in this position, Mr. Enverga did not leave any lasting imprint of his contribution.
There is perhaps something Mr. Enverga can do for the Filipino community at this crucial time of discord among Filipinos in Toronto. Admittedly, he and his wife were partly responsible for the issues that currently divide the community. He cannot deny this because he founded PCCF, a rival organization to PIDC, and his wife, also an officer of this new organization, is so enamoured with managing beauty contests that also raise funds and have been relentlessly questioned by the local media for lack of financial transparency. Mr. Enverga could be greatly instrumental in bringing our folks together with his stature alone as a Canadian senator and a distinguished leader in the community. At the same time, this could be a litmus test of his leadership ability which will assist him well in the Senate where he would be serving until he reaches 75.
But Filipinos in the Metropolitan Toronto area cannot be smug and content that we have Mr. Enverga in the Canadian Senate. We need to elect Filipinos to our local councils and to the provincial or federal Parliament if we must politically empower our community as a whole. Empowerment is not a dangerous word that should scare some of our so-called geriatric community leaders. I heard one community leader say that she doesn’t want “activists” because they are rabble-rousers, perhaps harkening to those days in her youth when student activists in the Philippines had to battle armed riot police.
To achieve political empowerment, our community organizations and their leaders must refocus their objectives and priorities, and redefine their political engagement by helping identify and encourage those that have talents for leadership who can be tapped for potential political runs. They won’t find these talents through the usual singing idol contests which the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) sponsors every year or the beauty pageants that PIDC or PCCF organizes to select beauty queens from among our young women so they can parade and showcase them during Independence Day celebrations. Above all, our older so-called leaders perhaps need to step down and let the younger crop of leaders lead us to the future.
A recent survey of Canadians’ satisfaction with our democratic process yielded an all-time low of 55%. Only 27% of Canadians think Ottawa deals with the issues they care about satisfactorily. Overall, statistics show that Canadians are getting disengaged from politics, in ways similar to the trend in the United States.
We usually blame politicians for how we feel towards our government. But we can’t keep on complaining and making it a national pastime. If we‘re not happy with the way our government works and responds to our problems, then let’s not elect those representatives and leaders we believe are responsible for the sad state of our democracy.
The same can be said of our community. Most of the time we blame our division, our lack of unity, for not being able to elect one Filipino in city council or in parliament. It’s about time to change this attitude. We cannot continue to disparage our community or our government if we are not engaged and doing our part. The engagement of citizens in public affairs is an indispensable condition of our democratic process.
We should encourage our young people to join the public life. Their political engagement, more than anything else, will advance our image as a community here in Canada and even back home. Let’s not simply be content with basking in the glory of those who are given the plum job or appointment for loyalty to one’s political party. A sign of political maturity among our people is when we start to encourage our young to skip the frivolous in favour of substance. Beauty and the beast pageants will bind us to petty squabbles and distract us from aiming for a deeper involvement in the political arena and the issues that matter: jobs, better work conditions, zero discrimination in the workplace, access to higher education, and work opportunities for our youth.

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