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It's All History by Jon Malek

Benson Flores

and the search for the earliest Filipinos in Canada

by Jon G. Malek

    Benson Flores Snug Cove
 
Benson Flores in 1912, standing in front of his shack on Snug Cove, Bowen Island, British Columbia. Photo courtesy of Bowen Island Museum and Archive.

My research into Filipinos in Canada has long been interested in how far back we can trace their presence. I’ve long believed that extending the known “earliest arrival” will help us realize how important Filipinos have been to Canadian history. While the effects of healthcare professionals and garment workers in the 1960s onward has been profound, it is important to recognize that, along with other Asian migrants, Filipinos have long been in, and contributed, to Canada.

That is why the research by Joseph Lopez on Mr. Benson Flores has had profound effects upon the dating of Filipino immigration to this country. Mr. Lopez came upon the record of Benson Flores while on Bowen Island in British Columbia, where he came across the book Bowen Island, 1872-1972 by Irene Howard. Ms. Howard included a few tantalizing records of Flores. Did she know how important these stories were? If not, Joseph Lopez certainly did.

In my early articles in the Pilipino Express, I mused on the early presence of Filipinos in Canada. The Pacific Coast of North America had long been a destination for Asian migrants looking for work, if not for a new permanent home. Chinese and Japanese were known to travel along the coast looking for seasonal work in fisheries, canneries, forestry operations, and other new industries in the 19th century. Filipinos were also well known to travel along with their Asian counterparts, a tale well told by America’s well-known Filipino author Carlos Bulosan in America is in the Heart.

While Filipino immigration to North America increased after the American annexation of the Philippines in 1898, their presence before that is long standing. So-called Manilamen – Filipinos working on Spanish fleets across the Pacific – date as early as the 16th century. By the 17th century, Filipinos were forming communities in what would become Mexico.

For years, the earliest known presence of Filipinos in Canada was in the 1930s based upon research by Marcial Aranas (The Dynamics of Filipino Immigrants in Canada), but I was able to push this back. In the 1920s, Filipinos were documented entering Quebec from the U.S. as clerks, indicating the degree of education they were receiving. Records from the 1880s documenting “Malays” likely referred to Filipinos, given that the term was broadly used to refer to Austronesian peoples.

This is where the work of Joseph Lopez comes in, pushing back our records of Filipino presence in Canada. Recognition must also go out to Jean Barman who has also revealed relevant records from this period in her research. Lopez has been able, through rigorous historical research, to date the arrival of Benson Flores to 1861, making him the first known documented Filipino in what would become Canada.

I remain convinced that we can push that date further. I have seen documentation that recorded an early European explorer on the West Coast noting the presence of Filipinos amongst other Asian migrants – but, without a record of this, I can’t really use it as a basis! Despite this, Filipinos were known for travelling along the West Coast. Moreover, they were known for following Chinese and Japanese labour migration that has been well documented and other scholars have noted that American and British officials often labelled Filipino migrants as Chinese or, as we saw above, simply “Malay.” The trick is in the documentation – while Benson Flores was the first known documented Filipino in Canada, once one knows the history of migration in East and Southeast Asia, one becomes convinced it must be earlier than 1861.

But why does it matter? Is it just a matter of erudition, of discovering facts for the simple fact of knowing them? No. It is a matter of placing Filipinos in the history of Canada. This country is so often presented as a “white” country, one created and built by people of European descent. Historians of Asian Canadians, though, know how wrong this is. Canadian history in the past five decades have been pushed to include the effects of Asians in Canada, but within that group Filipinos have been left out. Today, many still think that garment workers were the first settlers in Winnipeg – the story of healthcare workers prior is still not well known. What more can be said of Filipinos in Canada when we look back to 1861 and beyond?

This brings me to the overall point of this piece. Recently, a push has been made to erect a tombstone on his grave, along with a short documentary film. This has been spurred by former Winnipeger, Ted Alcuitas – the founder of Western Canada’s first Filipino newspaper, the Silangan – who has set up a GoFundMe page (https://gofund.me/421748ex). Flores was buried in an unmarked grave, identified by the tireless work of Joseph Lopez. Ted, as his friends know him, is a forever proponent of the Filipino community in Canada. He recently has played a crucial role in editing Magdaragat, a compilation of Filipino Canadian literature that has received international attention. As of writing, there is $2570 raised of the goal of $10,000. Tombstones are not cheap and honouring the life of Benson Flores is important.

One might imagine that Benson had no idea anyone would fret so much over his life, but he represents the experiences of so many in Canada. Benson, by all records, was loved by his neighbours; his work ethic and conviviality reflects the broader Filipino Canadian community. I implore us all to view Ted Alcuitas’ GoFundMe page (https://gofund.me/421748ex) and give what we can. Let us all commemorate and celebrate not only Benson Flores (and the research of Joseph Lopez and many other researchers), but every single Filipino who lives and have lived their lives in Canada.

Jon Malek is an Assistant Professor of History at Providence University College. His research is on the history of the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora. His current writing projects include a book on the history of Filipinos in Canada and a project on Filipino food and culture.