British Columbia·Mabuhay B.C.

Filipino Canadians call for support of Indigenous Peoples over shared colonized history

Filipino Canadians are calling on each other to support Indigenous people while also embracing their own — often forgotten — Indigenous roots in the Philippines.

CBC’s Michelle Eliot shares how she's learning more about Indigenous people in the Philippines

Sobey Wing is pictured in the Joyce-Collingwood neighbourhood in Vancouver, which is home to many Filipino Canadians. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

When Sobey Wing first performed a dance and martial arts demonstration portraying Filipinos battling Spanish colonizers 20 years ago, he could see many in the audience of 5,000 Filipino Canadians weren't connecting with the show. 

"The way the audience responded showed to me a very clear absence of understanding what we were depicting," he said. "It was like a blank wall."

Wing was born in Toronto and traces his roots to Cebu in southern Philippines. As president of Kathara Pilipino Indigenous Arts Society Canada in Vancouver, he is part of a growing Filipino population in Canada interested in learning more about the Philippines' pre-colonial history. 

"It's not comfortable to get into these things about our own history, and when it's presented suddenly, it can be a shock," he said.

I myself might have been someone who watched Sobey Wing and Kathara perform with that blank look on my face.

Growing up in Manila, I remember watching traditional performances from the Igorot tribes of the Cordillera region of the Philippines and being enthralled by their movements and traditional weaved clothing.

But beyond that, I didn't learn much as a child before moving to Canada about the lives of Indigenous people of the Philippines. 

BC Today host Michelle Eliot shares how learning more of her Filipino heritage has opened her eyes to the stories of Indigenous people back in the Philippines. (CBC)

So many aspects of the country, including its name, which is derived from Spain's King Phillip II, are connected to Spanish colonization from the 16th century onwards. Then came U.S. possession in the 19th century and the Japanese occupation during the Second World War. The Philippines did not become an independent nation until 1946, and in this long period of colonization, much of its Indigenous culture has been diminished. 

Today, the number of Indigenous peoples in the Philippines is unknown, but it is estimated to be between 10 and 20 per cent of the country's population.

Wing sees similarities between Indigenous communities in the Philippines and Canada, both of whom have a colonized history. That's why he and other Filipino Canadians are calling on each other to show their support for reconciliation in Canada with Indigenous communities.

"It's very fitting that if we look at the timing of Filipino Heritage Month, it coincides with National Indigenous History Month," he said. "That is something we can bring together ...  looking at both heritages."

An issue of human rights 

Beth Dollaga, a founding member of the group Canada-Philippines Solidarity for Human Rights, says Canada's residential schools remind her of colonialism in the Philippines. 

"It's very disturbing and reminds us how colonial powers have used aggressive assimilation powers," she said. "The same 'civilizing' rhetoric was used by the Americans in their imperialist war of aggression in the Philippines."

Before the U.S. possession, Spanish colonization also brought Roman Catholicism to the Philippines. In Canada, the Catholic Church operated roughly 70 per cent of residential schools. Dollaga says Filipino Canadians must stand with survivors and their families, echoing a call for an apology from the Church and indemnification.

Dollaga says even today, Indigenous people in the Philippines, like the Igorot, continue to fight against resource development in their lands. Dollaga likens it to Indigenous opposition to pipeline projects in Canada. 

"Some would think this is for development, but for the First Nations, they say 'whose development is it'?  And … our Indigenous peoples in the Philippines, they also ask, 'whose development is it?' Is it for us?"

Paddling together in one canoe, 'isang bangka'

On the banks of the Squamish River, Mandy Nahanee sings Greeting of the Day, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh prayer song. As her voice soars above the sound of the river rushing, a few feet away Babette Santos leans to the left and raises their eyes and hands to the sky, performing Bagobo Tagabawa and Pangalay dances from the Philippines. 

WATCH | Mandy Nahanee and Babette Santos perform together

A cross-cultural performance with Filipino dance and Indigenous song

2 years ago
Duration 1:55
Mandy Nahanee sings Snowbird by Sisuliah while Babette Santos dances a traditional Bagobo Tagabawa dance from the Philippines.

The performance is part of a welcome ceremony the pair have done for cross cultural events.

Nahanee is a performer and cross cultural trainer running her own company, Traditionelle. She is from the Squamish and Nisga'a Nations. Santos, who is a queer, second-generation and mixed-heritage Filipinx, is co-founder and artistic director of Kathara.

At one point, the two performers exchange paddles to signify moving forward together in one canoe or, as Santos puts it in Tagalog, "isang bangka.

Santos and Nahanee have been friends and collaborators for 20 years.   

Nahanee says their relationship has shown her just how many similarities their Indigenous cultures share, including the significance of the canoe. 

"We're [also] an ocean-going people ... we love songs and dance, and weaving and regalia," she said.

Santos, in turn, says Nahanee is a model for decolonizing and continuing to preserve traditions and honour ancestors.

"Understanding the roots of Indigenous identity in the Philippines is a journey toward knowing more about myself. If we go back six generations, we have Indigenous blood. It's a really hard concept for us who have been colonized."

Mandy Nahanee says her friendship with Babette Santos has shown her just how many similarities their Indigenous cultures share. (CBC)

When asked how Filipinos can become allies for Indigenous peoples in Canada, Nahanee says, simply, to make friends. She also encourages meaningful collaboration, citing a 2016 conference held in Gibsons, B.C., that involved Filipinos and the Squamish Nation meeting for months to plan an elaborate welcome ceremony, where songs and protocol were shared.

"So it's not like there's an event, we do a traditional welcome and then we leave. We get to be seen and heard throughout."

A shift happening

Wing believes a shift in interest and learning is happening, especially with Filipino Canadian youth. He says connection with Filipino culture can create a better understanding of our responsibilities to Indigenous people in both Canada and the Philippines. 

"As Filipinos, we understand the concept of ... being thankful for what we have," says Wing. "And part of that is recognizing the privileges we have as settlers on Indigenous lands."

Learning more about Indigenous cultures in the Philippines has prompted me to look back to Surigao Del Norte, where my father comes from, and the Mamanwa people, believed to be one of the oldest tribes in the country.

I have memories of seeing members of the Mamanwa people on a visit almost 20 years ago, and being fascinated with how they preserved their way of life. I'm now getting an even better sense of just how much resilience it has taken for them to do that.

Sobey Wing says connection with Filipino culture can create a better understanding of our responsibilities to Indigenous people in both Canada and the Philippines. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

And the lessons in Filipino Indigenous history give me another point of connection with Indigenous people in Canada.

Bob Joseph, president of Indigenous Corporate Training and a member of the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation, says Filipinos and others can take specific first steps. 

"If you could go and find the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action, and personally look for one for yourself and do that little bit to learn about history and culture and the UN declaration," he said. "And involve your church groups, your places of business, your government organizations ... I think those would be helpful things to do." 

Wing also envisions Filipinos learning more about Indigenous Peoples in Canada through books — he has found an increasing array of Indigenous materials at libraries —  but also through building cross-cultural friendships.

"The sense of kapwa (kindred in Tagalog), the Filipino concept of seeing self in others, emerges when we see each other in that way."

Do you have a story to share about the Filipino community in B.C.? We want to explore the people, cultures and perspectives in the province's Filipino community and we need your help. Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts.

Read more stories from Mabuhay B.C. here.

We want to explore the people, cultures and perspectives in the province's Filipino community and we need your help. Our coverage will be led by three CBC journalists of Filipino descent. (CBC)


Michelle Eliot is the host of BC Today on CBC Radio One.