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It's All About History by Jon MalekFestivals and life stories

By Jon Malek

After my review of the second annual Filipino Street Festival appeared in the 1 September 2013 edition of the Pilipino Express, something pretty amazing happened.

As a researcher of the history of the Filipino community in Winnipeg, one of my priorities is to learn and to tell the life stories of Filipinos living here. In the last few decades, Canadian historians have become more interested in the variety of ethnic communities that make up our society. This has been in reaction to histories that celebrate the actions of heroes and people in authority. Even today, many (but not all) introductory history courses in high schools and universities focus on the stories about powerful politicians, successful generals, talented artists and major events that have happened in the past. And rightly so, because many of these figures and events have been responsible for major changes, and have often made decisions that have changed this country and the world.

But what about everyone else? Where do the stories of “everyday people” – those who don’t become famous or very powerful – fit into these histories? I believe that the story of your average person living in Canada is just as important as the story of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, because together they make a part of our history. The actions of people with power and influence must be told alongside the story of those who work hard, of those who run small businesses that serve the community, of those new to Canada, of community leaders, and of those who might not otherwise be in the news. These people are important to this city, this province, and this country. As an historian of Canadian immigration, this belief is especially important to me. The story of immigrants and their families is that of Canada’s non-Aboriginal people, and the more we understand this story, the more we understand Canada and the people who share this land.

The benefit of researching “great people” is that there is often a lot of information about them. Historians need sources for information about those they write about: books, journals, newspapers, artwork and film are just some sources we use. But so often, the stories of everyday people are not recorded, are not available for others to learn from. To get to these stories, historians go into the community and talk with people. This process, called Oral History, involves a conversation where a participant tells an interviewer about their life or of a particular event. This can be a deeply personal story because it is part of who we are, and that is why it is always an honour and privilege when someone agrees to talk to me about their life.

This is why my experience following the publication of my review was so amazing. I expected, at best, a few comments but what I received was two respondents wanting to tell me their story. The first was from a Filipino who has lived in Winnipeg since the 1970s and has become a community leader. The second arrived in Winnipeg this spring from the Philippines, and came to the Street Festival looking for others from his hometown. I was happy that these two individuals contacted me, and humbled that they were willing to talk to me about their experiences. I quickly thought how neat it was that these two individuals each represented two ends of the Filipino community in Winnipeg: one from the early period of Filipinos in Winnipeg, who has spent decades helping to build the community, and one of the community’s newest members, finding his fellow countrymen and beginning to add to this community.

The stories of both individuals are very important. Although I refer to them as a “story,” they are much more. Some may think that their life story is only a personal story, relevant only to their friends and family, but in fact everyone’s life is history. This is why I am privileged that there are people wanting to share their life story – their history – with me. Together, these stories create the history of the Filipino community in Winnipeg. Each story is different: people come from different regions of the Philippines for different reasons, and their experiences in Canada have differed. Some have been here for decades, others only months; and those who already live in Winnipeg are helping those who are new get used to their surroundings, whether they are family members, friends, or co-workers. One thing that amazes me is how welcoming Filipinos are to their kababayan. The community, as I have come to learn, is a series of relationships, a web that brings people together – even those who don’t know each other – under banner of “Filipino.”

Each kabayan, old and new, are points in this web that is the Filipino community. If even just one point, one person, were taken away from that web, the community would be different. Your life is history; your life makes history. Together with the histories of others it makes the story of the Filipino community in Winnipeg. I would love to hear yours!

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and an alumnus of the University of Manitoba (B.A., M.A. in History). As part of his research project on the history of the Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon is looking to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at jmalek7@uwo.ca