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Medisina at Politika by Dr. Rey Pagtakhan

FIDWAM’s 25th anniversary

A touching human story

Saturday, August 24, 2013, Canad Inns Polo Park

L-r (seated): Hon. Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, Her Honour, Anita Lee, His Honour, Philip S. Lee, Minister Christine Melnick; L-r (standing): Hon Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, Fr. Vincent Tchaoule, Gloria Magpali, Jean Guiang
Hon. Dr. Rey Pagtakhan
Hon. Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, Gloria Magpali, Hon. Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, Jean Guiang
It is difficult to imagine that a gathering of Filipino live-in caregivers celebrating the inauguration 25 years ago (April 24, 1988) of the Filipino Domestic Workers Association of Manitoba (FIDWAM) would have the courage to invite community leaders, policy-and-law-makers from all levels of government and political parties, a University President and the Queen’s representative. Such a gathering became a reality a quarter of a century hence on August 24, 2013.

The cover page of the souvenir programme displays the photo of 17 domestic workers with founder Jean Guiang. It also shows the flags of Manitoba, Canada and the Philippines. I could only surmise that graphic artist Rachel Capello wanted to portray the touching human story that spans from one’s country of birth, the Philippines, to one’s country of choice, Canada.

Such was this columnist’s reflection as I watched the evening’s program unfold.

Presence of Queen’s Rep and University President

His Honour Philip S. Lee, Manitoba’s Lieutenant-Governor, and his wife, Her Honour Anita Lee and The University of Winnipeg President and Vice-Chancellor Honourable Dr. Lloyd Axworthy led dignitaries who joined members of FIDWAM and its 200 plus guests during its 25th founding anniversary.

FIDWAM President sets the tone

FIDWAM President Gloria Magpali set the tone for the evening in her opening remarks, which I have reproduced here nearly in its entirety to fully appreciate the significance of the silver jubilee celebration and the very touching human story it conveys:

“Tonight’s celebration brings to memory our sense of isolation, low esteem and apprehension 25 years ago when we felt alone and on our own for our existence and survival; when we continually heard the comments that we do the job that others do not want to do; when we felt being at the mercy of our employers and under constant fear of deportation; and when we began to be more acutely aware that, by the nature of our job and its status, we were easy targets for the violation of our dignity and human rights.

Despite our collective apprehension and, sometimes, outright fear, we resolved: to work harder and live up to our employment contract obligations; to remain stronger in our belief that we were doing an essential job for many Canadian families – caring for their young children and aging parents and attending to those with special needs and their other household chores; to remind ourselves that we could send to our families back home the needed funds for livelihood and education; to console ourselves that we were providing a valuable human resource in Canada and contributing to the economic growth and development of our country of birth; and to keep re-assuring ourselves that one day, with God’s help, we would all be Canadian citizens.

Tonight’s celebration also reminds us that we had our share of pleasant times… when we renewed our feelings of deep connectedness with our loved ones in the Philippines although separated thousands of miles away… and when we experienced the best of the human spirit – community volunteerism and advocacy.

We were the beneficiary as a group of this human spirit when we got organized as FIDWAM: to confidently feel that we deserve a good life and enjoy the same freedom as everyone else; to support all live-in caregivers, particularly the newer ones, in their settlement and integration in our beautiful province; to assist and protect fellow domestic workers against any wrongdoing, such as neglect, abuse, harassment, exploitation and mistreatment; and to lobby governments for legislative changes to better our living and working conditions.

Twenty-five years ago our lives were a constant struggle. Now, by just looking around you tonight, you would have already seen the transformation our association has done for us as members. We feel respected and accepted. We are proud and confident of who we are, what we stand for, and what we are able to be.

And we remain vigilant for the sake of our common future.”

How FIDWAM came into being

Jean Guiang, FIDWAM founder and adviser, recalled how her participation at the National Dialogue on the Plight of Filipino Domestic Workers in Canada – convened in Ottawa by the United Council of Filipino Associations in Canada during the latter half of the 1980s – opened her consciousness to the plight of Filipino domestic workers. She narrated that she heard a litany of painful stories from domestic workers across Canada, namely: isolation, long hours of work, stress of family separation, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, threats of deportation, absence of social and legal support, etc. She went on to say that the four Filipina domestic workers she first met upon her return to Winnipeg from the conference, “…were hesitant to talk and apprehensive to share their experiences, yet, tears were escaping from their eyes.” The knowledge she gained from that conference helped her empower the Filipina domestic workers in Manitoba to gather and eventually to form the association in 1988. She further remembered the advisory insight – “diligent advocacy and quiet diplomacy” – yours truly as Founding Co-Adviser apparently shared with them then to achieve results for their goals.

Hon. Dr. Lloyd Axworthy – Keynote Speaker

FIDWAM could not have had a speaker more fitting and proper to keynote its historic anniversary – the Honourable Lloyd Axworthy. He was Canada’s Minister of Employment and Immigration in the early eighties and he introduced Canada’s Foreign Domestic Movement Program that, for the first time, allowed foreign live-in caregivers to stay and apply from within the country for landing visa after completing their two-year employment contract – a right not previously allowed to migrant workers. His was an imaginative ministerial solution to help respond to unmet Canadian labour needs while ensuring fairness for migrant workers who ultimately wished to become Canadians.

The task is not complete. As recently as early this year, FIDWAM was made aware of one new case of mistreatment. Commendably, federal immigration officials moved with speed and rescued the woman from the abusive employer’s home. She was issued a ministerial permit to stay in Canada as she sought new employment opportunities elsewhere. The other sad part of this case was the apparent loss of a competent and caring live-in caregiver for the innocent youngster with disability in that said home.

The Honourable Dr. Lloyd Axworthy exhorted the membership of FIDWAM and community advocates to remain vigilant and insist that social justice is a vital part of human security.

Now incumbent President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, his passion for the supremacy of citizens’ well-being, particularly the vulnerable – whether Canadians or from the Philippines or from anywhere else in the world – over the selfish interests of the nation-state remains burning. A Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a scholar of humanity, the Honourable Dr. Lloyd Axworthy was the perfect fit as Keynote Speaker on the occasion of FIDWAM’s Silver Anniversary. Yours truly had the honour of presenting him to the assembled guests.

Salute of thanks – a mirror of support

FIDWAM Treasurer Flora Escano thanked the guests, dignitaries, FIDWAM advisers, donors, advertisers, and members of the Organizing Committee. Indeed to this columnist’ eyes, the long list of benefactors that had to be acknowledged and the overwhelming attendance at FIDWAM’s Silver Jubilee celebration mirrored the magnitude and commitment of its supporters and very much revealed the participants’ and benefactors’ sense of identification with its touching human story.

Dr. Rey Pagtakhan – a retired pediatrician, professor and parliamentarian – was on the full-time staff of the Children’s Hospital and the University of Manitoba Faculty of Medicine before serving in the House of Commons for 15 ½ years, including as Chair of its Standing Committees on Citizenship and Immigration and on Human Rights and as Parliamentary Secretary to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and senior cabinet minister in the Government of Canada.