How life-changing moments in Canada and the Philippines forged Burnaby council candidate Maita Santiago

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      It’s been almost three decades since Maita Santiago first ran for city council in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

      In November 1993, Santiago was part of the Vancouver slate of the Coalition of Progressive Electors that included Jenny Kwan.

      Kwan was the only COPE candidate to make it to council, eventually catapulting the Hong Kong-born politician to a long career in provincial and federal politics.

      At the time, Santiago was a young student of political science at SFU.

      Twenty-nine years later, the now mother of two young kids is running again.

      It’s her second time to enter municipal politics, and she’s going for a seat in Burnaby council in the October 15, 2022 local election.

      The Straight asked Santiago about how she compares herself in 1993 and at present.

      “I’ve been able to gain more experince in terms of community organizing and advocating for underrepresented groups,” Santiago said in a phone interview.

      After the 1993 election in Vancouver, she connected with Filipino community organizations that were involved in issues affecting caregivers, temporary foreign workers, and youth.

      These are the Philippine Women Centre of B.C., and the Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance.

      “That was life-changing,” Santiago recalled.

      From 1993 to 1999, Santiago immersed herself in causes for migrants, women, and people of colour.

      It was during this time that she met Mable Elmore, an activist who would eventually become the first Filipino Canadian to win a seat in the B.C. legislative assembly.

      Many years later, Santiago would work on Elmore’s nomination campaign, which led to the latter’s breakthrough election in 2009 as MLA for Vancouver-Kensington.

      Santiago has since served as constituency office assistant for Elmore, who is now on her fourth term.

      Santiago was born in the Philippines, and her family immigrated to Canada in 1977 when she was a young girl.

      The family first lived in Burnaby at the house of Santiago’s maternal uncle.

      Her involvement with migrant issues during the 1990s drew her back to the Philippines, one of the biggest source countries of newcomers to Canada.

      Santiago relocated to Manila sometime in 1999, and started holding various positions there with Migrante International, a global alliance of overseas Filipinos.

      She worked as Migrante spokesperson, member of the executive committee, and later, secretary general, a post she held from 2002 to 2008.

      It was in Manila that she would meet her future husband.

      The couple got married in the Philippines.

      “It was also a life-changing experience for my husband that I went there,” Santiago said.

      After nearly a decade of activism in the Philippines, Santiago returned to Canada in 2008.

      Her husband followed not long after, and they started a family in Burnaby.

      Their two kids were born in Burnaby Hospital.

      In addition to community organizing and advocacy for underrepresented sectors of society, Santiago has also learned a lot as Elmore’s constituency assistant.

      “I’ve gained experience working with different levels of government, particularly the province,” she said.

      All of these have made her “much, much more attuned to what issues people face”.

      As constituency assistant, she has been providing frontline services, connecting people with the resources they need. 

      “In this role, I also came to know the many different struggles folks face on a daily basis,” Santiago said.

      These issues include housing, healthcare, childcare, seniors care, and workplace concerns.

      Santiago recalled that her father knew people in COPE, and one day, he and some of his friends sat her down and asked if she would be interested to run for Vancouver city council.

      “Even then in the 90’s, I knew that we needed a Vancouver that would work for everyday people and that’s why I ran,” she said.

      Libby Davies led COPE as the party’s mayoral candidate in the 1993 election won by Philip Owen, standard bearer of the Non-Partisan Association.

      Four years later, Davies would become NDP MP for Vancouver East in 1997, and serve six terms for 18 years until her retirement in 2015.

      Santiago noted that while a lot of things have changed for her as she gained valuable experience through the years since she first ran for a city council seat, one thing remained constant.

      “What hasn’t changed for me is I want to see a city that represents everyday people,” Santiago said.

      She said that she is running with the Burnaby Citizens Association because the values of the NDP-affiliated civic party align with hers.

      Santiago noted that Burnaby is known for its green spaces, good transit services, and well-managed city budget, thanks to the leadership of BCA, which has been the dominant party for many years.

      “I think that we can do much more,” Santiago said.