Sitting in her Fraser Street constituency office, MLA Mable Elmore rattles off some numbers to demonstrate the growing size of the Filipino community in Canada.
Elmore, B.C.’s new parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives, points out that there are nearly one million people in Canada, including more than 160,000 in B.C.
Yet this growing population does not have a free-standing provincial cultural centre in Metro Vancouver.
“It’s been a longstanding vision and desire to have a physical place for the community to come together and celebrate culture and heritage,” Elmore tells Pancouver.
She’s working with Mabuhay House Society and developer Tobi Reyes, a Filipino Canadian, to create this.
“When I was first elected in 2009, you know, that was a really consistent message I heard from the community wherever I was…to build the centre,” Elmore says. “I’ve been working on it since I was first elected. It’s closing in on 14 years.”
Premier David Eby recently boosted the community’s dream by mentioning a “provincial Filipino cultural centre”. This came in his December 7 mandate letters to Elmore and Lana Popham, the new minister of tourism, arts, culture and sport.
It marked the first time that a premier has publicly instructed a member of cabinet or a parliamentary secretary to advance a provincial cultural centre for the Filipino community.
“We’re looking at a proposed area in the Marine Gateway area, Cambie and Marine…adjacent to SkyTrain,” Elmore says.
She’s the first and only B.C. MLA who traces her roots back to the Philippines. Her mother, Maria, grew up on Cebu and immigrated in 1965.
Elmore outlines options for centre
The Vancouver-Kensington MLA said that the Filipino community centre will be modelled on the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby. It’s a multi-use space offering programming, exhibits, and events. The Nikkei facility also contains a large collection of historical records and recordings about Japanese Canadians.
Elmore says that Filipino Canadians want a cultural centre to include a meeting space for organizations. In addition, community members have expressed a desire for a seniors’ centre, childcare facilities, art exhibitions, and possibly even a museum.
She promises there will be plenty “Bayanihan spirit”, which a hallmark of the community. Bayanihan refers to the propensity of Filipinos to come together to help one another.
The society’s name, Mabuhay, is also significant. It literally means “long live”, but it also includes an element of celebration—i.e., “we’re around, we’re happy.”
“It’s very active,” Elmore says of this word.
This ties into narratives around what the community wants in its cultural centre. Some would love it to become a home where emerging Filipino scholars and intellectuals can talk about the history of migration. There’s also a desire for a gathering place where young people can embrace languages and cultures of the Philippines.
History of Filipino migration
Elmore’s mother was among the first significant wave of Filipinos who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s. This came after a 1962 order-in-council eliminated “overt racial discrimination” in Canadian immigration policy, focusing on skills rather than race or national origin.
However, according to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, this order-in-council did not eliminate discriminatory rules around which Canadian immigrants could sponsor children over 21, married children, and other extended-family members.
It’s worth noting that Filipinos were coming in smaller numbers decades earlier. One of the early migrants was Benjamin “Benson” Flores, who came in 1861 and settled on Bowen Island. He’s believed to be the first recorded Filipino immigrant to Canada.
Elmore points out that Filipinos were possibly coming to B.C. before that. That’s because they were often crew members on Spanish galleons, which were sometimes referred to as Manila galleons (Spanish: Galeón de Manila; Tagalog: Galyon ng Maynila). They sailed across the Pacific Ocean from the 1500s to the 1800s. Most of the seafarers came from the Philippines.
Some crew members jumped ship to escape harsh conditions when they landed somewhere warm, like Hawaii. According to Elmore, the first Filipinos came to the United States in the 16th and 17th century this way.
Meanwhile, Spanish explorers visited the west coast of B.C. in the late 18th century. Some Gulf Islands—such as Galiano, Saturna, and Cortes—reflect this history in their names.
“Currently, Philippines is still a maritime nation,” Elmore notes. “I think 25 percent of seafarers are Filipino.”
The Vancouver-Kensington MLA hopes that a provincial Filipino cultural centre will shed light on this tradition.
“The vision of Mabuhay House in the centre is in the context of the global Philippine diaspora,” Elmore emphasizes. “So certainly, British Columbia [and] Canada are connected to that history.”
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