Monday, June 27, 2011

Something new, something different

St. James Town, the area of high-rise apartments straddling relatively upscale Cabbagetown on the east of Parliament and the mix of heritage semi-detached homes, rooming houses and law offices on old Cabbagetown south of Carlton, by far has the highest population density in all of Canada. It has a density of about 65,000 persons for every square kilometre compared to 900 persons per square kilometre for Toronto.

Looking through the fence toward St. James Town, Toronto. Photo courtesy of Dan Cronin.
Many residents of St. James Town are new immigrants trying to make things work. Over 50 per cent of the families in this part of the city live below the poverty line. According to the 2006 census, Filipinos comprise the largest ethnic group living at North St. James Town (Jarvis to Parliament, Bloor to Wellesley), with Tagalog as the most spoken of the non-official home languages.

St. James Town is the original Filipino settlement in Toronto, where new Filipino immigrants settled in the sixties and early seventies. It continues to attract new Filipino immigrants, mostly domestic workers and their families. The affinity with poor and struggling newcomers seems like a magnet that attracts families from the same group to live together in this place. Filipino families who have moved up in their economic status tend to settle in the outer suburbs of Mississauga, Brampton, Markham, Richmond Hill, Pickering and Vaughan.

Filipino families who have never left St. James Town are those unable to rise above their low incomes and who continue to be challenged by lack of better opportunities. Many of them are former caregivers who have held on to their old jobs and employers, failing to move on to better-paying jobs and working conditions. Parents sponsored by their immigrant children, mostly in their senior years, are forced to take manual labour such as cleaning offices in the downtown core. Others who have retired or are simply unemployed and not actively seeking paid work can be found chatting on street corners under the shadows of tall apartment buildings or under tree shades (referred to as “tsismis” trees by area residents) exchanging stories of their once-so happy lives in the home country and their personal struggles in Canada.

Poverty continues to beleaguer these families, which to some could be an embarrassment, but relatively a new phenomenon that did not hamper the early influx of Filipinos in the ’60s and early ’70s. While many of them were college-educated and former professionals (lawyers, accountants and teachers), these early immigrants had found that in the Canadian marketplace, their credentials carried no value. With employers putting value to relevant Canadian work experience, these diplomas and titles from the homeland were as good as worthless, their previous achievements often betrayed by their immobility in the Canadian workplace.
Apartment block life in St. James Town, Toronto. Photo courtesy of Phil Marion.
This predicament keeps them ensnared in low-wage jobs that will likely produce generations of poverty, a pessimistic outlook that others may not share. Those who dismiss this view will argue that their lives before they came to Canada are still better off compared to their situation in the Philippines, and would be first to blame them for their lack of effort and resourcefulness in improving themselves, as if poverty were internally driven and social and economic circumstances have nothing to do with it.

When poverty is handed down from parents to their children, it can become a vicious cycle that creates not only an economy but also a culture of inequality.

Filipino families in St. James Town constitute a key demographic that needs to be addressed more seriously through advocacy and initiatives by community organizations in the area. At present, Parliament Street is home to Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), a privately-run resource centre serving, as stated on its website, “the neighbourhood of St. James Town, Regent Park, and Moss Park,” three recognizable pockets of poverty in downtown Toronto.

More than majority of FCT’s officers are drawn from outside the neighbourhood it serves, a number of them high-profile doctors, professionals and public servants in the larger Greater Toronto Area. With a powerhouse of intelligent and well-qualified officers, one would think FCT will be deeply involved in issues that affect Filipino families in St. James Town. But the truth is, FCT is but a house of dreams so far detached from the sad reality of life of Filipinos in St. James Town. FCT’s programs such as the Paraluman Beauty Search and Filipino Singing Idol Contest cater to our short-lived and hollow craving for entertainment, nurturing the illusion that winning in beauty or singing contests could be a ticket out of misery. Its heritage workshops, supposedly aimed at helping Filipino youth in their search for cultural identity, can easily be judged by the substance or obvious lack of it in the cultural fare at the annual Philippine Independence Day celebration that yearly features a parade of Santacruzan beauties and roast pigs in boxes.

 Click  the following link  to
 watch the Parada  ng Lechon  at Nathan Philips Square, Toronto during  the
 Philippine Independence Day celebration, June 12.
“Lechons or roast pigs are part of Filipino culture,” the FCT president stressed in an interview during the recent June 12 celebration of Philippine Independence Day at Nathan Philips Square. “It’s the centrepiece of every Filipino fiesta. Without the lechon, you are considered so poor,” she added.

And when did lechon become an integral part of Filipino culture? Perhaps, it’s not the tangible lechon that can be regarded as a legacy from Spain but the audacity to show off or boast, certainly a Spanish colonial trait, for a family to serve a whole roast pig to make an impression that they’re not in dire straits. Like its other entertainment offerings, FCT’s parade of lechons tends to whet our palate but leave us poorly nourished.

FCT has the capacity and the capability to rise above its current puerile engagements. It can be a relevant organization if it can realign its priorities with the social and economic issues that confront Filipino families in its neighbourhood, and by replacing its inconsequential entertainment-focused programs with an agenda of genuine settlement and integration for Filipinos in the Canadian cultural mosaic. Let the young enjoy their youth, yes; but let the old focus on activities that will ensure that future generations will grow up with a culture and history that they can be proud of.

FCT needs to identify itself with the community it serves, just like Kababayan Community Centre in Toronto’s west end, which plays a big role in responding to the needs of Filipino new immigrants and Filipino-Canadians in Parkdale and surrounding communities through what it calls a “painless and positive process of acculturation.”

Filipino community organizations in Toronto must redefine their framework of community engagement in ways that will enable Filipino Canadians to become full participants in Canadian society. This means community empowerment, for Filipinos to actively engage in the larger body politic and participate in shaping Canada’s future. It also means reclaiming our history here in Canada, not merely as consumers of pop culture and useless relics from our colonial period, but also as purveyors of a transformative immigrant culture as well.

For example, FCT with its team of skilled professionals can form a group of volunteers who will conduct conversations with residents of St. James Town on issues and problems that affect them, and from these discussions, help identify leaders to represent the residents in meetings with local politicians, government bureaucrats, and business leaders. Since housing is a common problem among the residents, FCT can have a team to assist them with landlord and tenancy issues.

If St. James Town is truly an identified client area for FCT, then it must have a clear vision of how to help its residents. Instead of trumping out activities like the Filipino Singing Idol, the Search for Paraluman or other competitions which other Filipino groups are already doing, FCT can engage in innovative collaborative partnership with Filipino residents of St. James Town on projects that will help empower them as members of the larger Canadian community.

FCT has been conspicuously absent in its own neighbourhood, particularly among Filipino residents, while other organizations like Community Matters Toronto and Recipe for Community Partnership Toronto, a project of the Toronto Community Foundation, have been mobilizing St. James Town residents and developing their skills and knowledge that will empower them to be the voice for change in their area. From projects that will improve equity of access to sports and exercise at local community centres to cooking, coaching and bicycle repairs, these organizations are making an impact in engaging residents young and old to improve their sense of belonging and safety in their neighbourhood.

Rows of apartment buildings in St. James Town, Toronto. Photo courtesy of
 the_brom. Click the following link to view video of  Community Matters  Toronto's
 project in St. James Town:
Filipinos will continue to miss the bus or the new subway train to Canada’s invigorating future if we remain content with our old ways of community engagement.

Other visible minority groups have already jumped on the bandwagon and gained inroads in politics and community building, Our leaders should listen to the needs of our new Filipino immigrant working class, our women caregivers, the most exploited class of workers in our community and who comprise the largest segment of new immigrants, and our young people who seem to be lost in transition and cultural identification.

Something new by way of a more spirited community engagement is what we need.

To achieve a fair and genuine settlement and integration with the larger Canadian social fabric, we must link arms and unite with each other and the broader Filipino Canadian community for the common good and do away with the legacy of our colonial past of dividing into fractious groups to preserve and protect our vested interests.


  1. Finally an article that challenges transformation from within our community and a call to action. I enjoyed reading this!

    Rev. Julius A. Tiangson
    Gateway Centre for New Canadians
    Canadian Filipinos towards Action Citizenship

  2. Great post.

    (That's my panorama of St. James Town! Neat. Thank you very much for crediting me.)