Dr. Rey Pagtakhan:
Twenty years later – A retrospective
Twenty years ago, on November 21, 1988, Canadian history was made in north Winnipeg. The first Filipino Canadian, in the person of Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, won a seat in Canada’s Parliament. I was sixteen at the time and the political bug had not yet bitten me so I was not involved in that historic campaign. However, I remember very clearly the excitement of my Tatay and his friends who were all involved in helping to get “Doc” elected. I also remember the pride the community felt after it became official that Canada had its first ever Filipino Canadian Member of Parliament (MP).
From 1988 until 2004 Dr. Pagtakhan served as MP for Winnipeg North, and then Winnipeg North - St. Paul when the boundary was redistributed. During that time however, he did not confine his duties simply to those who resided within the geographical boundaries of his riding. Instead, Dr. Pagtakhan often assisted individuals and families from across Winnipeg and Canada.
Over the years, Dr. Pagtakhan, or “Dr. Rey” as his constituents often called him, achieved many milestones for himself and for the Filipino community in Canada. Not only was he the first Filipino Canadian MP but he was also the first Filipino Canadian to be appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (Jean Chrétien), and the first Filipino Canadian to be appointed to the Federal Cabinet. Dr. Rey’s appointment to Cabinet also made him the highest-ranking Philippine-born elected official serving outside of the Philippines. His long and distinguished career will forever be remembered in the history books.
Dr. Rey has always believed that politics is a noble profession and he strove to always uphold that principle throughout his political career. He also strove to impart that same belief and sense of ethics in his staff. In fact, to this day, when I sit down to meet with a client to discuss their concerns, I can sometimes hear Dr. Rey’s voice in my head because I was fortunate enough to have been a member of his staff in the early years when he conducted extensive meetings with constituents at his office on Leila. Very often during those Saturday afternoons I would sit in on Dr. Rey’s meetings and I was able to witness and learn how he conducted an interview, dissected a problem and formulated a solution.
As someone who has served on Dr. Rey’s staff for many years (first as a student who worked part-time both in his Winnipeg and Ottawa offices and later as an advisor when he became a Minister) I could share many stories about his life, his family, his career and his achievements. However, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of his first election, I will just share with you what I believe to be the three most important parts of his legacy.
First, Dr. Rey was a tireless advocate for his constituents. If you were to ask him what he found most gratifying: “securing millions of dollars for the Red River Floodway and Manitoba Human Rights Museum” or “helping thousands of individual Canadians obtain visitor’s visas, CPP disability cheques or veterans benefits”, I’m sure he would pick the latter. Regardless of where he was in Canada, people were constantly asking him for help. Most people sought his assistance for problems they were experiencing with the government. However, others sought his help for their personal problems, for letters of recommendation and some even asked him to help find them jobs.
The role of an MP with regards to government related issues is straightforward – they advocate for their constituents to the best of their ability. However, many of the requests being made of Dr. Rey were completely beyond the scope of his duties as an MP. Nevertheless, he would try and assist as much as possible. The hardest thing Dr. Rey had to say to a constituent was, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t help you.” And it wasn’t because he didn’t help; he would and did help but he was not always successful in some of his advocacies. In my opinion, there were many people who either did not understand this or simply were offended that their problem wasn’t solved.
The life of a politician isn’t easy. In many ways it’s a thankless job because regardless of how hard they work or how much they accomplish on any given issue or file, the constituent may still not be happy. However, this did not deter Dr. Rey from trying and in the end he can honestly say that he was able to help thousands of people.
Influence on youth
Second, although Dr. Rey left his job as a professor when he became an MP, he did not leave behind his love of learning and teaching. To me, one of Dr. Rey’s lasting legacies will be his influence on the youth that he mentored during his time in Parliament. All across Canada, Dr. Rey was able to meet young Canadians from all walks of life. He was particularly interested in meeting young Filipino Canadians and asking them for their opinions on the latest issues and encouraging them to take part and volunteer, not just in the political process, but in all aspects of the community. Dr. Rey is fond of saying that we should not confine our volunteerism to just the Filipino community. Instead, we should share our talents with all Canadians.
Finally, the creation of the Philippine Canadian Centre of Manitoba (PCCM) will forever be one of Dr. Rey’s most lasting legacies. Over the years, there have been many claims about who was responsible for the establishment of the PCCM. The community has heard many names being thrown about yet the name “Rey Pagtakhan” never seems to be one of them. In fact, if you look at the official PCCM website, there is one mention of Dr. Rey and it makes it sound as if his involvement was minimal and he simply came in at the end to make the official announcement. Why is that? Is it because he likes to keep a low profile and doesn’t like to brag about his own accomplishments? Sometimes, Dr. Rey’s humility and respect for others has worked against him and others have received the credit he rightly deserves.
I know that Dr. Rey will probably be upset with me over this part of my article but I think the time to remain silent has long past. As a former member of the Pagtakhan staff (or the “Pagta-clan” as we jokingly refer to ourselves) we can personally attest to Dr. Rey’s intimate involvement with securing the necessary funding for the PCCM and with his providing valuable advice to the many community leaders involved in the process from the beginning.
The PCCM had no greater friend or ally than Dr. Rey because he constantly advocated for PCCM funding to his Manitoba colleagues, his cabinet colleagues and to the Prime Minister. The truth of the matter is, Dr. Rey was instrumental in securing government funding for the PCCM and the various ministers involved from all levels of government can attest to this. In fact, the late Ron Duhamel, former Minister of Western Economic Development at the time, sent Dr. Rey a letter shortly before the announcement to “officially” advise him of the funding approval. More importantly, in his letter, Minister Duhamel hand wrote a short note to Dr. Rey, congratulating him because all his hard work had finally paid off.
My purpose in raising this is not to diminish the hard work of the many people who dedicated themselves to ensuring that the PCCM was built. In fact, I applaud their dedication. However, I simply want to set the record straight and to encourage the community to finally acknowledge Dr. Rey’s involvement. We have to remember that regardless of how hard the community worked, the PCCM would never have been built without the support of government funding. Neither the Province nor the City was willing to approve this funding until the Government of Canada came on board. And who was at the Cabinet table pushing the Government of Canada to approve this project? It was Dr. Rey Pagtakhan.
If we are all honest with ourselves, there is no one person who is solely responsible for the establishment of the PCCM. It took the combined effort of an entire community to see this dream come to fruition but somewhere along the line it seems that only certain names ever get mentioned and receive recognition. So let’s ensure that everyone’s contributions, no matter how small or large, are acknowledged because each contribution was like a building block. If you remove one, the entire project comes tumbling down.
From humble roots to a lasting legacy, Rey Pagtakhan travelled a long and winding road during his political career in Parliament. The journey was filled with successes and triumphs, setbacks and losses, accomplishments and missed opportunities. To most he was a great MP while some viewed him as “just another politician”. For those of us who were fortunate enough to be a member of his staff, a volunteer on his campaigns or a supporter from across Canada, he is a leader, a statesman, a mentor and a friend. Love him or hate him, surely we can all agree that his election as the first Filipino Canadian to Parliament on November 21, 1988 was truly a historic event for Winnipeg North, for Canada, and indeed, for all Filipinos.
Alona C. Mercado is a lawyer practicing in Winnipeg with the law firm of MONK GOODWIN LLP. She was called to the Manitoba Bar in 1999 and the Ontario Bar in 2003. Her preferred areas of practice include wills and estates, committees, real estate, business and commercial transactions, and immigration law. Alona can be reached at (204) 956-1060 ext. 233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.