Born in Winnipeg and raised in Vancouver, Sammie Jo Rumbaua grew up asking her Filipino-immigrant parents a lot of questions.
“Who are Filipinos?” “What are they doing in Canada?” “Why are things the way they are in the Philippines?” There were mundane ones, like “Why are Filipinos obsessed with movie stars?” Then there were sensitive questions, like “Why are Filipinos stereotyped as overseas workers, nurses, and nannies?”
As a young person defining her identity, Rumbaua wanted to discover her heritage. But the answers weren’t always forthcoming.
Like many immigrants, her parents were busy trying to fit in and learn the new ways in their adopted country. They preferred not to talk about where they came from and why they’d left.
“They said, ”˜Don’t worry about it. It’s in the past. You don’t live there,’ ” Rumbaua, now 28, told the Georgia Straight. “Not that they don’t want me to know. But they just say, ”˜Mind your own business. Concentrate on your studies. Go to school. And get a good job.’ ”
The school system didn’t provide any answers either, according to the Langara College–trained administrative professional. She recalled that she didn’t come across any Philippine content in class instruction when she went through her elementary, high-school, and postsecondary studies.
But Rumbaua feels encouraged by a project by a Philippine-born educator to fill in this gap.
Leonora Angeles, an associate professor in UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, has put together a community-based Philippine studies program tailored for Filipino-Canadian youth and adult learners.
According to Angeles, the program is designed like a regular postsecondary three-credit course, with 40 hours of class instruction and assignments. She’s hoping that in the future, colleges and universities—especially in B.C. where Filipinos are the third-largest ethnic-minority group—will consider offering a similar course in Philippine studies.
The UBC academic also hopes that local school boards develop social-studies instructional modules that integrate Filipino migration to Canada.
“Filipino Canadians and other Canadians who have lost their identities, and lost sense of their heritage, are going to be disturbed, unhappy, and, in a way, misplaced Canadians,” Angeles told the Straight. “At some point they will have to figure out who they are.”
The program covers key periods of Philippine history. Equally important, it also seeks to “explain the origins, processes and outcomes of poverty, industrialization, urbanization, migration and development patterns in the Philippines, and how they connect to Philippine-Canadian relations”.
There’s a subtopic titled: “Philippine-Canada Relations: Why Are We Here and Why Do We Stay?”
Last December 4 and 5, Angeles conducted a seminar to teach community-based instructors how to deliver mini lessons for their organizations and peer groups. “My whole idea is to turn them into organic historians,” she said.
The training took place at the constituency office of NDP Vancouver-Kensington MLA Mable Elmore. The first B.C. politician of Philippine ancestry to be elected to the legislative assembly, Elmore was among those who took the course. And so was Rumbaua.
Married to a native Canadian and a mother to two children, Angeles has come across many Filipino-Canadian students in her own westward migration. A former instructor at the University of the Philippines, she came to Canada for graduate studies. She taught at Queen’s University, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of Regina in the early 1990s before moving to UBC in 1998.
According to Angeles, a lot of Canadian students of Philippine descent feel a “sense of betrayal” because their parents told them nothing about their heritage.
“The main reason, I think, from the point of view of parents, is because they have experienced perhaps some subtle or even overt forms of discrimination in the workplace or they themselves have assumed that because we’re people of colour, that we’re going to have some problems adjusting in this newly adopted country,” Angeles said. “They like their children to avoid these experiences. And that the only way that they could do that is for them to be able to speak English without an accent, get to know as much about Canadian culture and society, introduce themselves to the different identity markers that mark them as Canadians.”
Angeles hopes that popularizing Philippine studies at the community level will encourage Filipino Canadians to demand institutional learning of this kind within the formal educational system.
Rumbaua shares this aspiration. “It’s different when it’s offered to you,” she said. “If something’s not offered to you, you’re not going to be able to access it. But again, the more and more people who are asking about it, like the people who participated in Leonora’s class, if people are asking for it, then certainly the educational system will be able to provide that to us finally.”
Rumbaua has found ways to explore her roots. She travels to the Philippines to help build houses for the poor as a member of the Enspire Foundation, a Vancouver-based nonprofit. She organizes a dance party in June of each year, when Filipinos around the world mark Philippine independence day.
Now that she knows more about her heritage, the questions Rumbaua asks are on a different level. They’re more like, “How can the Philippines become a better nation?”