Last summer, Joseph Lopez stood by an unmarked grave at the Mountain View Cemetery of Vancouver.
The radio host and freelance print journalist reckons that nobody else must have visited the burial spot in about a century.
The plot is the resting place of Benjamin “Benson” Flores, who Lopez has found was the earliest Filipino on record to have immigrated to and settled in Canada.
“Benson,” Lopez said, “if you can hear me, wherever you are, I want you to know that you are not forgotten.”
Based on an official account by the government of Canada, people from the Philippines began immigrating to the country in 1931 to work in the garment industry in Manitoba.
However, Lopez’s research shows that Filipinos were already in Canada and specifically in B.C. about 70 years earlier.
Lopez combed through censuses of Canada as early as 1825, and went through numerous directories and documents.
He established that Flores, who was listed in the 1911 Census, was the earliest recorded Filipino immigrant.
Flores came in 1861 and lived on Bowen Island.
Lopez recently concluded a four-part series titled “First Filipinos in Canada” with Canadian Filipino Net, an online-only publication of the Vancouver-based Maple Bamboo Network Society.
In the series, the host of the Filipino Edition radio program on CKYE RED FM 93.1 and FM 89.1 shared the findings he has made over the years.
His journey of discovery started in 2011 when he first visited Bowen Island out of curiosity as a new immigrant at the time.
Upon arrival, he went to the local library to find out more about the place, and a librarian gave him a book by historian Irene Howard titled Bowen Island 1872 – 1972.
To his astonishment, page 36 of Howard’s book refers to the presence of people from the Philippines around 1898.
“From the Philippines, Benson, Matilda and William Flores (DL 1426), the men beachcombers and fishermen,” the book mentioned.
Page 42 cited a “Ben Flores, who had a float house in the Cove, and liked to play the concertina and sing, could make a little money renting boats.”
As Lopez related in his series, he met Howard five years later in 2016 at her apartment in Vancouver.
Howard told him that she collected information on the people from the Philippines from Bowen Island residents when she was doing her research during the 1960s.
Lopez wrote an account on his blog in 2016.
Four years later, when COVID-19 struck in 2020, he received a number of enquiries about the subject.
This encouraged him to do more research, this time plowing through census records and everything he could find.
Lopez found that the 1901 Census recorded 19 people “born in the Philippines and whose ethnic origin is Filipino, living in Canada, all residing in British Columbia”.
“There are no records of Filipinos living in other provinces or territories,” Lopez wrote in his series with Canadian Filipino Net.
Moreover, “Those living in British Columbia resided in Bowen Island and the City of Vancouver.”
Lopez noted that for some reason, Flores does “not appear in the 1901 census or the censuses earlier but shows up 10 years later in the 1911 census”.
“Perhaps he was not in his residence when the census enumerator came knocking on doors,” he wrote.
The 1911 Census recorded 1846 as the birth year of Flores.
“Benson [Flores] was probably a strapping 15-year-old when he landed, most likely as a young seaman for a foreign vessel docking in Vancouver, BC. In the early 1800s, boys as young as 12 were recruited as ship’s crew,” Lopez wrote.
Citing from Howard’s book Bowen Island 1872 – 1972, Lopez recalled that Flores had a float house in Bowen Island’s Snug Cove, operated the first boat rentals, and was a known for his kindness to neighbours.
From his death certificate, Lopez related that Flores died in 1929 at at the Vancouver General Hospital.
“Witness to his death was Madeline Ray, a long-time personal acquaintance of Benson living in Vancouver, who attested and signed that Benson Flores was unmarried, and had no next-of-kin within the province of British Columbia,” Lopez wrote.
Flores was a bachelor all his life.
“In the probate,” Lopez wrote, “Benson bequeathed his assets to four residents of Bowen Island: Martha Cameron ($500 which today is worth $7,308.51), Mah Hong ($150 which today is worth $2,192.55), Donald Cameron ($100 which today is worth $1,461.70), and Kenneth Cameron (rowboats, Evinrude engine, gun, and all furniture).”
After the conclusion of his four-part series with Canadian Filipino Net, the Straight contacted Lopez.
In a phone interview, Lopez expressed pride in knowing that Filipinos came to Canada much earlier than the official account dating to the 1930s.
“It’s a sense of history. It’s a sense of identity. It’s a sense of citizenship,” Lopez told the Straight.
Lopez said that Flores’ story is very much the story of many Filipinos who come to Canada to build new lives.
“It is a story of perseverance and hope,” Lopez said.