Thursday, May 28, 2009

Yes we can, too

Oo, kaya rin natin ito!”

One of two Filipinos in Canada now calls the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) home. There are about 200,000 Filipinos living in the GTA, the fourth largest visible minority group behind the Chinese, Indian and Black communities. Tagalog is the seventh most-spoken language in the city of Toronto.

Yet, we don’t have a single Filipino elected in the halls of political power in the city of Toronto. The Chinese, Indian and Black communities have broken the glass ceiling. They have representatives in the city council and in the provincial and federal parliaments as well.

Not that we’re scared of joining the political fray. Others have tried in the past but failed.

If Filipinos in the province of Manitoba and the city of Winnipeg can rally behind Filipino candidates and elect them to higher office, why can’t Filipino Torontonians do the same?

“It is not that Filipinos do not care about politics, yet many are struggling for daily survival to become actively involved in organizations,” says Cecilia Diocson, executive director of the National Alliance of Philippine Women in Canada.

Diocson argues that the individual hardships faced by many Filipinos in Toronto reflect their overall community’s economic and social marginalization in Canada. She blames the Canadian government’s policy of exploiting cheap labour such as live-in caregivers and temporary foreign workers, mostly in retail, construction, tourism and restaurant jobs.

Because of the exodus of Filipinos through the Live-in Caregiver Program, Diocson further argues that many Filipino professionals have been trapped, stalling their integration and development in Canada. Majority of Filipino professionals have also not been able to accredit their professional education and work experience due to “systemic and racist barriers,” Diocson says.

Nonetheless Diocson has noticed the surging interest and enthusiasm of Filipino migrant workers, youth and immigrants in engaging in the economic, political, social and cultural life of Canada, as evidenced by their participation in various activities sponsored by Filipino advocacy groups. Her hopes rest on Filipino youth to continue the Filipino community’s struggle towards genuine equality and development in Canada.

Instead of criticizing our community organizations and their goals, a Filipino community leader has suggested that we should form a new organization to build our political clout and help elect Filipinos in higher office. This kind of observation, however, could defeat the very objective or purpose it is designed to serve because it immediately dodges the civic responsibility of every existing Filipino community organization to help initiate change within our community through democratic participation and community empowerment. Worse, it engenders the further trivialization and degradation of our community organizations into mere purveyors of banal activities like singing and beauty contests, festive celebrations, and social partying that do not promote our integration and involvement in Canada’s political life. Not that fellowship and partying are unnecessary in our lives, but too much focus on these activities may detract us from pursuing the more serious tasks of citizenry, of engaging in community activities as empowered, purposeful participants.

Do we really need a new organization to help us build our political clout?

During the height of the displeasure of the community against the alleged abuses of a federal MP towards two Filipino caregivers, a prominent leader of a Filipino centre in Toronto was caught on TV uttering, “We [the Filipino community] have to show that we are a force to reckon with.”

If this community organization can effectively link up with Filipino social advocacy groups, then there’s no need to replicate organizations that will advance and promote our political stature. Our community leaders need only to re-align their goals with those of the advocacy groups, and put less emphasis on events or activities that portray the image of the Filipino as a mere entertainer or movie or singing idol. With all our striving to be a better version of ourselves here in our adopted land, we seem to have carried over our old habit of putting other cultures above our own. An East Indian boy once asked at a meeting at the Wellesley Community Centre if the Philippines were part of Hawaii. The reason he asked he said was because he has often seen Filipino children and adults perform Hawaiian dances during the Cabbagetown festival. Such is the image many of our community organizations project that not only misleads, but also demeans our identity as a people.

A Filipino community centre that could effectively represent our yearning for a strong Filipino identity in Toronto is the Magkaisa Centre at 1093 Davenport Road. Right now, it is composed of several organizations whose primary aim is to promote the struggle for Filipinos in Canada to achieve equality, human rights and genuine development. It is also in the forefront in the struggle for human rights, national freedom and democracy of the Filipino people. One may not fully agree with Magkaisa’s ideological leaning but it is a collective that fights not only for our community’s integration with the larger Canadian mainstream, but also for our active and purposeful engagement in the Canadian body politic.

Count in the other genuine social advocacy groups, too, in our midst such as the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), Migrante Ontario, Caregivers Support Services, and the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture .

We have the right organizations now to advance our political clout. The only item sadly missing is us: the silent majority, the disinterested groups, the comfortable and leisure-driven middle class, the fence-sitters, and those who just don’t care. With our numbers in the GTA, we can be “a force to reckon with” if only we’ll join and support these advocacy groups.

Why not? If a leader of a Filipino community centre could speak during the World Falun Dafa Day (Falun Gong practitioners) celebrations in Queen’s Park last May 13, 2009, right at the time when the “nannygate” controversy was steaming hot, she surely can lend her voice to the more important causes of her fellow Filipinos in Toronto.

Barack Obama perked up the recent U.S. presidential elections with his slogan, “Yes We Can,” and in the process, has helped revitalize the political engagement of the American citizenry in the affairs of their government, not only through voting but also in voluntarism in the civic sector. President Obama is living proof of the success of community organizing; his first contact with the real world after he left college was working as a community organizer for Chicago’s poor and marginalized groups.

For our various advocacy groups and grassroots community organizations, the goal of participating in the centres of political power is achievable. There’s no need for a new organization to accomplish this purpose. All we need to do is to link up our arms together and join in solidarity with one another.

Yes we can, if we want to make it happen.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cultivating our social capital

In Democracy and America, the great French observer Alexis de Tocqueville marvelled at the vigour of the new American democracy. Writing about the American people and their institutions in two volumes published in the mid-1800s, Tocqueville found that American citizens were not just into occasional elections but were also willing to actively participate in the civic affairs of the nation.

Almost two centuries later, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, published the instant classic, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. The provocative title of the book underscores Putnam’s message that Americans have been retreating from civic engagement, concluding that America is becoming a less vibrant society than it used to be. In updating Tocqueville, Putnam has suggested that Americans were withdrawing from the very idea that nourished their democracy.

Despite a boom in higher education, Putnam observed that political participation in America is actually declining, that Americans have steadily become less and less likely to participate in civic affairs. Putnam found an overall decline in social capital in America over the past fifty years, a trend he considered might have significant ramifications for American society.

Then just two years ago, Putnam struck again, with a bombshell that life in a diverse society has the effect of isolating people from each other. He is now saying that people who live in multicultural communities are alienated not only from “the other” but also from those who they were once comfortable with. As Putnam puts it, Americans basically hunker down, like “turtles” living under their shell, wary of each other and of themselves.

Putnam’s new thesis may be something Filipino-Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), should take note of, as it relates to multiculturalism and the need for our community to invigorate its investment in social capital.

As part of the larger Canadian vertical mosaic, are Filipino-Canadians cultivating social networks that will allow civic engagement to thrive?

Thomas Ehrlich defines civic engagement in his book, Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, as “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.”

Thus, according to Ehrlich, a morally and civically responsible individual finds affinity to the society at large and considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own. Such an individual sees the moral and civic dimensions of issues, and is therefore willing to take appropriate actions based on informed moral and civic judgments.

Civic engagement can manifest in many forms, from individual voluntarism to organizational involvement to electoral participation. It can include efforts to directly address an issue, work in cooperation with others in the community to solve a problem or interact with the institutions of representative democracy. It can encompass a range of specific activities such as working in a soup kitchen, serving on a neighbourhood association, writing petition letters to an elected official, or voting.

This is the kind of civic engagement that Putnam lamented in Bowling Alone as declining precipitously in American society. But before we could even consider the present state of Filipino engagement in the larger Canadian civic life, the first critical question we must ask ourselves is whether our community organizations and other informal associations are doing enough to engender our participation and make us a more informed and engaged citizenry.

We can’t totally rely on the state to sponsor our community’s involvement with the body politic, that’s why we have community organizations which are local and have a life of their own like so many grassroots organizations. Otherwise, voluntary associations become instruments of the state, common in totalitarian regimes but not of representative democracies.

During the first State of the Filipino Union organized by the Kapisanan Philippine Centre and other youth groups in Toronto early this year, the consensus was that Filipinos in Toronto remain so fragmented with little political and economic clout. With a population of almost 200,000, Filipinos have not been visible in the GTA’s body politic except for the election of a Filipino councillor in Markham, and two school trustees in Markham and Mississauga. Not one Filipino has ever won a seat in Toronto’s city council or its school boards.

Across Canada, Filipinos in Manitoba have shown their political clout by electing three members of the provincial parliament: Conrado Santos, the first Filipino-Canadian elected in the whole of Canada in 1989 and to run for leadership of a major political party in Canada, Cris Aglugub, elected in 1999, and Flor Marcelino, the first Filipino woman elected in all of Canada. Manitoba also sent the first and only Filipino-Canadian (so far) to the federal parliament in Ottawa, Dr. Rey Pagtakhan, who was elected in 1988 and became the first Filipino-Canadian cabinet minister in 2001. Another Filipino, Mike Pagtakhan, was elected as councillor in the city of Winnipeg in 2002.

Alberta Pinoys didn’t lag that far behind their neighbours in Manitoba by electing Carl Benito to the provincial legislature representing the riding of Edmonton-Mill Woods. Arturo Viola was a former mayor and now city councillor of Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario.

Looking at our own demographics, the 2006 census shows that Filipinos are highly concentrated in the province of Ontario with a population four times greater than Alberta and more than five times larger than Manitoba. In Toronto alone, there are 171,980 Filipinos residing in the GTA, compared to 36,935 and 19,625 in the metropolitan areas of Winnipeg and Edmonton, respectively.

Why then is it hard for a Filipino to get elected in the city of Toronto? Or beyond the entry level position of councillor or school trustee in the whole of GTA? Is it easier to unite Filipinos in Winnipeg and Edmonton because of their smaller numbers?

With 38 per cent of the Filipino population in the city of Toronto, Scarborough seems likely the best place to elect the first Filipino councillor or member of the provincial parliament. Next would be North York which has 27 per cent of the Filipino population in the city.

Consider too that majority of Filipino-Canadians are women who make up about 56 per cent of the population. That’s why Vancouver could be the next hot political setting to test the political mettle of Filipinos in Canada. Vancouver lately has seen a big surge in Filipino women social activists that could lead to community empowerment and full civic participation. Overall, Filipino women in Canada are the ones who are busy in such activities and issues relating to resettlement and integration, overcoming economic marginalization, equality and human rights, and combating systemic racism and social exclusion. And where are the men, in this scenario? Most likely, they are into sports, particularly basketball and golf (for many a sign of upward mobility, a sport associated with the upper class back home).

There are at least two major factors that seem to slow down or even diminish Filipino engagement in Canadian political and social issues: the kind of leaders we choose and the type of events we promote.

Let’s look at three major Filipino community organizations in the GTA: the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), the Philippine Independence Day Council (PIDC), and the Kalayaan Cultural Community Centre (KCCC).

The presidents of FCT and KCCC are both women in their senior years. Filipinos are traditionally respectful of their elders, particularly someone matriarchal and ripe in age who represents abundance of experience and wisdom. But, based on reported activities, these women do not appear to have any direct involvement or experience with the larger social issues that Filipino-Canadians grapple in their daily lives such as community empowerment, political representation, human rights and equality, discrimination, or access to justice and jobs. Thus, this lack of affinity to social advocacy causes has seriously limited their vision as community leaders, beyond traditional concerns like basic resettlement services, community fellowship or social partying. One of these leaders had even commented before that the Filipino community should not be expected to do its share in eradicating poverty in the city of Toronto if the Canadian government could not even solve it, which betrays her lack of understanding of this issue.

The same goes to the leader of the PIDC, an umbrella group of various associations in Ontario. Although its president is relatively younger and quite steep in the running of business, his leadership has been limited to the successful staging of annual events such as the Philippine Independence Day and Mabuhay Philippines! Toronto Summer Festival. Yet, he could be credited at least for keeping alive and strong the Filipino diaspora in Toronto, the throng of Filipino-Canadians who maintain strong sentimental and material links with their homeland.

Incidentally, one of the three Filipino community leaders cited finds the term “diaspora” seemingly repulsive without as much as an explanation, which again reveals her lack of appreciation of the historical significance of the social and cultural dynamics of migration of citizens from one country to another, not only of Filipinos but also of other national groups as well. That’s why we call it “diaspora,” a word derived from Greek, meaning a scattering of seeds.

The activities of the FCT and KCCC are focused mainly on festive celebrations along the likes of Pistahan sa Toronto and Kalayaan Picnic, and entertainment such as the Filipino singing idol contest or beauty pageants. The FCT, a non-profit corporation, is run like a private business concern with a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) on top of the organization, presumably because it rents out office space and facilities. While KCCC owns a condominium building, it shares the use of the facility with two other member organizations in Mississauga.

All three major community organizations appear disconnected with the larger Canadian social fabric. For major issues that concern our group as a whole, Filipino-Canadians in the GTA have to rely on the efforts of social advocacy groups such as the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), Migrante Ontario, Caregivers Support Services, the Kapisanan Philippine Centre and university-based youth associations for continuing the integration and civic engagement of Filipinos in the Canadian political and cultural mainstream. Hopefully, from these groups will emerge future members of city councils or provincial and federal parliaments, and visionary community leaders so unlike their elders.

There are those who yearn for a Filipinotown in Toronto or Mississauga thinking that a Filipino enclave will foster our integration with Canadian society and will help elect Filipino leaders to higher office. But this is a mistaken belief as reported in recent studies that enclaves do not reflect a community’s social cohesion and integration.

As the experience of one family from Portugal who initially settled in an enclave called Little Portugal in Toronto’s west end would indicate, “Enclaves provide settlement; they don’t provide integration.”

This brings us full circle with Putnam’s latest thesis that there is a strong correlation between interracial trust and ethic homogeneity. In other words, the less diverse your community, the more likely they would be to trust the people in it who are different from them. The flip side is also true: the more ethnically diverse the people in the community are, the less people would trust them. But don’t think that just because we don’t trust people of different races that we should be living in enclaves with the same roots.

None of the findings from Putnam’s latest study means that we are doomed by diversity, or, as we prefer to call it in Canada, multiculturalism. It does suggest, however, that simply celebrating and promoting diversity is not going to help us over the long haul.

Putnam suggests that we need to construct new social identities. It is his hypothesis that “a society will more easily reap the benefits of immigration, and overcome the challenges, if immigration policy focuses on the reconstruction of ethnic identities, reducing their social salience without eliminating their personal importance.”

As Putnam stressed, “immigration policy is not just about numbers and borders. It is also about fostering a sense of shared citizenship.”

It is in sharing citizenship with other members of society that we can achieve the unity that has so long escaped us as a community. This is particularly critical for Filipino-Canadians: to find a common voice and use it so that we’d be less disengaged with the larger world. Putnam demonstrated in Bowling Alone that social capital has a crucial impact on societal goals like crime reduction, educational achievement, even life expectancy. And if we neglect building our social capital, Filipinos in Toronto will become even more disconnected from the communities around them and with Canadian society as a whole.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The passion of the moment

The recent street protests by Tamil supporters in Toronto show their passion about their politics. Young children marched together with their parents like one big family affair, their thoughts and fears foremost for relatives in Sri Lanka who were caught in the crossfire between the Sri Lankan government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers.

A few months back, Canadians of Tibetan descent marched on the streets of Toronto demanding for a free Tibet, a country now under Chinese control. Before this summer Olympics, in fact, Tibetan protests were held in several big cities around the world.

Israel’s onslaught at the Gaza Strip also brought thousands of pro-Palestine demonstrators on the streets condemning the attacks as a disproportionate response to Hamas violence against Israeli settlements.

All politically driven, the success of these street demonstrations impinged on the government of Canada’s response. In all instances, Canada kept its distance and avoided direct involvement. Yet, Canada as a society has been invariably engaged with the aims of the protests through the media and public forums.

While there is no accurate way to gauge the success of these protests, we witness how protest organizers effectively mobilized people to join the marches on the streets and generated buzz in the media about their demands. If the number of protest participants and pages of opinions generated in the media are determinants of success, then these protests are successful by any means even if their long-term demands are not achieved.

Perhaps this has motivated some Filipino groups in Toronto who are planning, although quite reluctantly, to persuade Filipino-Canadians to join a street protest demanding the ouster of MP Ruby Dhalla from the federal parliament. The embattled MP was accused by two Filipino caregivers of being an abusive employer, asking them to perform work outside their contracts and even withholding their passports. Parliament is now investigating whether MP Dhalla has violated certain immigration requirements in contracting the services of the two Filipino caregivers, and whether the allegations of abuse are well-founded.

Before what is now known as Canada’s “nannygate,” some employment agencies in Toronto were exposed by the press to have offered bogus jobs to prospective nannies from the Philippines. Women from the Philippines have been recruited in exchange for money, but when they arrived in Canada, no jobs waiting were available as promised. The women were forced to work in jobs arranged by their employment agencies under oppressive working conditions. The Ontario government has responded with a proposed legislation to require registration and licensing of nanny agencies and offered a hotline where nannies can phone in their problems without fear of reprisal.

It was during one of the public meetings held by the Ontario government to gather feedback from caregivers on the proposed legislation that MP Dhalla was exposed by two Filipino caregivers who were encouraged to speak up because of the promise of no reprisal.

As a whole, the Filipino community does not seem affected by this current nanny controversy. Abuses by employers and employment agencies have already been documented in the past and advocates for caregiver reforms have been vigorously demanding changes in the immigration law that would allow caregivers permanent resident status as soon as they arrive in Canada. Their temporary status has been argued by the caregivers as the root cause of abuse because they have no other choice but to give in to the wishes of employers and employment agencies during two years of work as live-in caregivers. All of them would like to gain permanent residence after completion of their contracts and eventually become Canadian citizens, a privilege they will not achieve working overseas in Hongkong, Singapore or in the Middle East.

Previous demonstrations were staged by caregivers in their attempts to raise public awareness on their plight but these were mostly participated by the caregivers themselves and a few supporters from labour groups. Notably absent were Filipino-Canadians who have snugly settled in Canada.

There are at least two probable reasons to explain the low turnout of Filipino-Canadian support for the caregivers.

One, among Filipinos in the Philippines and those who have become Canadians and successfully integrated in their new society, caregivers are considered lower in social and economic stature. This prevailing attitude may even be true among former caregivers who have become Canadian citizens. While caregivers are not unheard of even in the Philippines, they are usually young women plucked from the rural areas in order to take care of the children of well-to-do families in the cities. They are therefore treated as members of the servant class. Those who have achieved success in their careers and enjoyed a level of comfort in life would tend to distance themselves from people or conditions that they perceive as lower than their new stature. This may be difficult for some Filipino-Canadians to accept, but deep inside them is a condescending attitude towards their fellow Filipinos who have not achieved their level of success.

“Nanny lang naman kasi siya,” is a common expression that one hears. “She’s just a nanny.”

The second reason goes to the root of apathy among many Filipinos towards political issues, particularly those who are relatively successful and have settled well in middle-class comfort. As a community, Filipinos in Toronto are more concerned about things that will satisfy their basic economic needs and will promote their status or image. They will not take risks to align themselves on controversial issues.

For instance, there are extra-judicial killings in the Philippines and rampant human rights abuses, but unlike the Tamils in Toronto, Filipino-Canadians will not march in the streets to demand a stop to all these killings. Or when a Filipino woman was raped by an American soldier and thousands in the Philippines have been demonstrating for the scrapping of the Visiting Forces Agreement (an agreement, not a treaty, that allows U.S. military personnel in the country), the same incident meant nothing to Filipinos in Toronto and it might even be a butt of jokes to some macho Filipino men.

Some members of a Toronto association of graduates of the premier educational institution in the Philippines, a state university that produces most of the country’s leaders, are more interested to hear a Philippine senator speak about his aspiration to become the vice president of the Philippines. When was the office of vice president ever deemed an important elected position?

This senator has not achieved anything significant during his term in Congress except being married to a Filipino megastar who is also visiting Toronto to perform in a live musical concert. When an outspoken member of the opposition in the Philippine Congress visited Toronto last year to speak on human rights abuses and the growing number of disappearances and civilians being killed, did members of this alumni association listen to him? Too bad, this opposition member of Congress wasn’t married to a popular movie star.

When the two Filipino women came out in the open about the abuses committed by MP Ruby Dhalla, some so-called community leaders immediately seized the opportunity to voice the Filipino community’s displeasure and even volunteered to testify before a parliamentary committee investigating the allegations. Where were these community leaders when the caregivers and other advocacy groups were demanding for reforms in the Live-in Caregiver Program? Or when the caregivers exposed the illegal practices of recruitment agencies? What would these community leaders testify to when other advocacy groups are much more engaged and knowledgeable with the problems of caregivers and their demands for reforms? Or was this just a perfect opportunity for self-promotion?

There could be a street protest of caregivers soon to highlight these workers’ demands for reforms. Mostly caregivers will attend as usual, with a handful of participants from labour groups and sympathizers from advocacy groups. But expect no community leaders around unless television coverage is guaranteed and they would be chosen to speak.

Would it be a better idea to stay home this time, rather than join a political sideshow in parliament where the party in power only wants to discredit a member of the opposition, and not to listen to the demands of the caregivers for reforms? Filipino caregivers will be served well by their advocacy groups by continuing their efforts to persuade the government that it’s about time to legislate reforms. They have been largely on their own, and have been successful in conveying their demands without much help from a community that will never be quite ready to pick up the fight for them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Balancing life and inconvenience

It was a balmy Sunday afternoon. A perfect time to clean the backyard although there was a hint of frost in the forecast.

My wife left the house an hour earlier to meet with our youngest daughter for their Mother’s Day dinner date, and later, to watch a documentary film, Poetry in Motion, at the Royal Theatre on College Street. Halfway to the venue, the 506 streetcar she was riding got stuck behind four other streetcars on University Avenue.

My daughter called on her cell phone, wondering whether her mom knew the restaurant’s address. She had to leave her apartment late to give more time for little Onegin, her new dog.

I reassured my daughter that her mom had left an hour before and could just be browsing inside one of the vintage shops near the Royal. That night, my wife went home late after her tryst with our youngest, fuming she had to take a cab as no streetcars were in sight. “But we saw a very good documentary,” she said, as I tried to catch the climax of a TV movie re-run.

My wife rattled on and told me she had to get off the streetcar twice because the streetcars couldn’t move; some stretches and intersections along College were clogged with Tamil demonstrators. She had to walk almost a mile to meet my daughter. When they got off the theatre, little did she know that the Tamil demonstrators had seized a ramp of the Gardiner Expressway along the lakeshore causing more traffic. It was only the next morning when she picked up the newspaper from our porch that she realized what had transpired.

The city mayor warned he would order the arrest of defiant Tamil protesters if they created another traffic chaos while the Toronto police chief was visibly irked at the organizers for bringing children and seniors to join the march. More than 2,000 demonstrators of Tamil origin commandeered a ramp of the Gardiner Expressway, one of the city’s busiest highways.

“The protesters were endangering themselves, they were endangering the public, and they were endangering the police,” the Toronto mayor said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Tamil Tigers were reportedly killed in a bloodbath in Sri Lanka that weekend. Tamil Canadians were demonstrating on the streets of Toronto to denounce the attacks which they called genocide. Leaders of the Coalition to Stop the War in Sri Lanka said there would be more and larger protests forthcoming.

Many Torontonians woke up the following Monday morning feeling crabby over the inconvenience to commuters, motorists and pedestrians caused by the blockade of the Gardiner. The city bureaucrats and police were spinning concerns about imagined dangers to the public if the street protests should go awry.

It was a lazy Sunday afternoon. Those who drove their cars going to the city could have easily taken alternative routes through the city inner roads. Commuters on streetcars could just have stretched their legs and walked on a beautiful afternoon, as many riders like my wife did. How would this little inconvenience compare with 3,000 innocent lives wiped out by a ruthless government?

The protesters were Canadians of Tamil origin, who brought their elders and their young children along because this was a serious life-and-death family matter: relatives and other members of their families in Sri Lanka are being massacred.

Does the Canadian government have a responsibility to respond to the demands of the protesters? Of course there is, and it is a legal and moral one. Relatives and members of Canadian families are being killed in a genocidal war and all the protesters are asking is for the Canadian government to listen and put pressure on the Sri Lankan government and for other nations to declare an immediate ceasefire, or to impose economic and political sanctions if the Sri Lankan government refuses an international plea for ceasefire. Is it so difficult for the Minister of Foreign Affairs to summon the Sri Lankan ambassador to his office to explain the continuing killing of innocent citizens in his country?

Canada is known as a peace broker and for its efforts to rehabilitate and rebuild regions in the world which are devastated by armed conflict. We cannot simply watch on the sidelines and ignore the genocide in Sri Lanka. We have peace-keeping troops in Afghanistan and our soldiers are getting killed in a war against terror that primarily benefits the United States, yet it is absurd that Canada will not step in a desperate situation where relatives of its citizens are getting killed.

We are a signatory to the Protocol Additional II to the 1949 Geneva Convention and Relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (1979), which Canada ratified on November 11, 1990, and the Canadian Charter of Rights also guarantees the freedom of peaceful assembly.

The city mayor of Toronto and the police have no legal override to restrict the right of Tamil Canadians to peaceably assemble on our streets, especially if they do not threaten the safety of the public or cause public mayhem, except for minor inconveniences such as traffic or commuter delays. As a peace-loving and humanitarian society, the killings of other innocent citizens, though they may happen thousands of miles away from our shores, also affect us very deeply, and therefore we have a moral obligation to extend our help to victims of such carnage and the duty to speak to the world to act in order to stop these killings now.

Street protests have been vital to democracy. Public rallies in East Germany helped bring down the Berlin Wall. The American civil rights marches led to stronger equality rights laws. More than a million Filipinos protesting in Manila during the height of the Philippine Power Revolution brought down the Marcos dictatorial regime.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifically allows peaceful demonstrations and the freedom of assembly to facilitate the redress of grievances against the government. Our own Charter of Rights guarantees this freedom subject only to reasonable limits that can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.

Outside of North America, especially in regions where democracy and the rule of law are still fledgling concepts, street protests are about life-and-death issues. It’s probably because the stakes of protest here are a lot lower that we easily whine if we are inconvenienced by traffic snags. It was entirely different from the 1960s when young people took to the streets in droves because they were afraid they would be shipped off to Vietnam.

Given that the armed conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan may not be our own wars, the loss of innocent lives on account of an unjust war should be sufficient enough for us to feel empathy and compassion for those who lose their loved ones. The loss of life of a fellow human being should be powerful enough to galvanize us because our lives are also affected in many ways.

This year, Parisians hit the streets to object against Facebook’s redesign. In India, nearly 1,000 snake charmers played their flutes as they marched through the streets performing with cobras and other live snakes that have been banned since 1991 Their demand: allow snake charmers their traditional way of life and let them perform again. How much rage do we need to draw people to the streets to denounce the genocide in Sri Lanka? If these freak issues could hold the attention of many to the chagrin of some bureaucrats, why wouldn’t the city of Toronto be inclusive enough to let Tamil Canadians march down city streets demanding the Canadian government to show concern for the lives of relatives being killed in Sri Lanka?

Toronto is a much more liberal and caring city than the University of Utara Malaysia whose chancellor, the Sultan of Kedah, warned intellectuals not to get involved with negative activities such as street demonstrations. The Sultan said streets are not the right avenues for protest against the establishment, suggesting that the university should adopt the Socratic approach instead. Let’s hope he wasn’t insinuating that we drink hemlock, as Socrates did, to end it all.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Days of slave labour far from over

Toronto’s nanny controversy was first exposed by the Toronto Star when it reported last March 14, 2009, that caregivers from the Philippines were being lured to come to Canada for at least $5,000 per head for jobs which turned out to be bogus. One nanny recalled joining 16 other unemployed nannies in the cramped basement of a nanny recruiter’s house where they were detained and incarcerated without proper food. All 16 of them were harassed, scared and exploited to work for the recruiter under oppressive conditions. Their passports were kept by the recruiter obviously to prevent them from running away.

On Tuesday, May 5, 2009, Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla, a fast-rising member of the Federal Parliament and potential cabinet member if the Liberal Party regains power, found herself in the eye of the storm when two caregivers alleged they were illegally employed by Ms. Dhalla and then badly mistreated. In addition to seizing their passports, the Filipino nannies claimed that they were also forced to perform work outside their contract as caregivers such as cleaning the chiropractic clinic which belonged to the MP’s brother, cleaning the house of the MP’s mother, and shovelling snow until midnight.

This report of abuses against nannies by their recruiters and employers is a clear reminder to us that the days of indentured servitude or slavery, in short, are not yet over. That nannies from the Third World such as the Philippines are comparable to victims of human trafficking, a euphemism for slave trade, which Hillary Clinton called the “dark underbelly of globalization.”

In his book, A Crime so Monstrous: Face-to-Face with Modern Day Slaves, Benjamin Skinner wrote: “There are more slaves today than at any point in human history.” Skinner estimated that there are currently 27 million worldwide, 143 years after the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1865, and 60 years after the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights banned slavery worldwide.

After four years of researching for his book while posing as a buyer at illegal brothels on several continents, Skinner concluded that slavery in its many forms – debt bondage, forced domestic servitude and forced prostitution – still exists and is shocking, mostly because it is invisible to those of us who don’t know where to look for it.

What the Filipino nannies went through in Toronto is just part of the current North-South system of exploitation. The South’s (the Third World) role is essentially to supply cheap labour that perpetuates servitude, defying the official rhetoric that although decent work is an important element in achieving reduction in poverty, everything remains the same.

And sometimes, there is a danger in the myopic vision of some advocates of caregiver reforms that punishing illegal recruiters or forcing a politician to step down after being exposed as an abusive employer is enough, or it is at the very least an important part of the public relations offensive to shame a government that is insensitive to the working conditions of caregivers.

Let’s consider the recent efforts of some advocates of caregiver reforms in the Filipino community in Toronto.

After the Toronto Star exposé of the bogus operations of nanny recruiters, caregiver advocates demanded that recruitment agencies be licensed and regulated by the provincial government. A new bill in the Ontario provincial parliament is on its way to becoming a law that will require registration of nanny employment or recruitment agencies and prohibit them from charging fees from prospective nannies. Lawyers and immigration consultants who are in the immigration business are not subject to this new law because they are governed under a different regulatory framework. So nanny recruitment agencies can simply pass on their invoices for fees to their lawyers or immigration consultants, who in turn will pay the agencies for their share of the cost of doing work for documenting nanny applications.

Forcing MP Ruby Dhalla to resign is not going to help Filipino nannies in achieving the reforms they want. “Gotcha” doesn’t work in Canada, especially against a member of Parliament. Ms. Dhalla has already resigned from her post as party critic for youth and multiculturalism affairs and has asked the federal ethics commissioner to review the allegations of abuse and illegal behaviour against her, steps that are aimed at cooling down the controversy. Besides, “we don’t hang people on the floor of the House of Commons,” as Bob Rae, another Liberal MP said.

The obvious call to arms by one Filipino community organization to fan the flames of public outcry against MP Ruby Dhalla is an example of a small-minded perspective of the issues that really confront Filipino caregivers. If Filipinos are really hell-bent in ousting Ms. Dhalla from the federal Parliament, they can do so by campaigning against her during the elections in her riding in Brampton.

At least three advocacy groups are on target concerning the most important of the caregiver issues. These are the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ), the Caregivers Support Services, and the recently-formed Grassroots Hub (G-Hub), a network of independent community and migrant workers, organizations and individuals informally linked though the initiative of the Filipino Catholic Missions of the Archdiocese of Toronto.

All three advocacy organizations are demanding that the federal government grant permanent residence status to caregivers upon their arrival in Canada. The core of their argument is that nannies become vulnerable to abuse by recruitment agencies and employers because of their temporary status. Nannies have no other choice but to go along with the wishes of their agencies or employers and bear their suffering in silence because their temporary residence is a clear path for them to gain permanent resident status after completing two years of caregiver work during their first three years in Canada.

But this rationale stands on infirm legs. Caregivers are determined on a set of criteria lower than those required of permanent resident applicants. If they are to be processed against the criteria for permanent residents, they obviously will not qualify. To land them permanently upon arrival will be discriminatory to permanent resident applicants.

A possible compromise is to give caregivers permanent residence status under the following conditions: (1) they must stay with their employers and will be allowed to change employers only on reasonable cause; (2) they will have the option to live-in with their employers or stay live-out, and employers’ approval is not necessary; (3) they will not be able to sponsor their family members (spouses and children) unless they have completed two years of their work contract; (4) all incoming caregivers will be required to register with a provincial office who will be responsible in monitoring their contract and working conditions; and (5) they will be allowed to continue their studies to upgrade their skills during their free time.

But under the present Conservative government, the likelihood is that the Live-in Caregiver Program might be scrapped and applicants for caregivers will be lumped together with temporary and seasonal workers. Between this possible scenario and the present program, caregivers are better off where they are now. It is also conceivable that the Conservative or even a Liberal government may increase child-care subsidies to parents to do away with hiring of live-in caregivers for their pre-school children.

Poverty is the very reason why many Filipino women are forced or even hoodwinked into accepting caregiver jobs, or into becoming modern-day slaves. It is the primary driver of slavery today, and unscrupulous agencies have taken advantage of this situation. As long as there’s a ready source of people who are so desperate for survival, and if we don’t address that, there will always be slavery.

Filipino nannies in Toronto are not alone in their suffering and struggle. In Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe provides a guide to the contemporary American scourge of labour abuse and outright slavery. Bowe visited locations in Florida, Oklahoma, and the U.S.-owned Pacific island of Saipan, where slavery cases have been brought to light as recently as 2006.

Instead of chains, Bowe found that modern slavery uses coercion in the form of threats of deportation, beatings, harm to families back home or even death. Bowe focuses on three cases: a labour contractor named El Diablo who held Mexican illegals in involuntary servitude, working in Florida orange groves, barely paid, kept in decrepit conditions and intimidated, violently, to keep quiet about it; a Tulsa, Oklahoma-man, owner of a steel-cutting plant, who contracted with an Indian-born American to recruit Indian labourers, who were overworked, underpaid, housed in squalor, and threatened with deportation if they resisted; and the U.S. commonwealth of Saipan, which recruits foreign workers, who are abused and exploited while working in sweatshops for U.S. clothing manufacturers.

About a month ago, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a report on how Filipino women who seek employment overseas keep on getting victimized by illegal recruiters. They ended up working in a far-away land, cut off from their family, and worse, were physically abused, sometimes molested, and not even paid a cent of their wages.

It told of the story of Alice who was offered a job by an illegal recruiter who promised her a good employer, a higher salary and quick deployment to Dubai, of which she has heard good things about. When she arrived in Dubai, her first employer attempted to sexually molest her. After complaining to her agency, she was transferred to another household. Her new employer included a lecherous grandfather who kept trying to open her bedroom door at two o’clock in the morning. She learned to sleep with a knife tucked under her pillow and her bed against the door. Fearing for her life, she called the Philippine embassy for help, but before the embassy could respond, Alice was asked to pack up and leave.

Little did Alice know that the next turn of events would even be worse. Her employment agency sold her contract and passport to another agency in Oman where she found out that she had to work as a prostitute. Not willing to become a prostitute, her foreign agent sold her to another agent in Damascus, Syria. Without a visa, Alice was held in Damascus and thrown to a detention cell where her one-night stay would linger forever for the rest of her life. Eventually, she was released and found work as a domestic helper for a couple with six children. She worked from morning till late in the night doing many tasks: from cutting tree branches to cleaning the entire house and feeding the children.

Eventually, the Philippine embassy in Lebanon negotiated for the repatriation of Alice and 16 other Filipino women working under oppressive conditions in Syria.

The above accounts are not meant to downplay the experiences of our nannies in Toronto but to illustrate what slavery has become today. Modern slaves are no longer boarded on ships that cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But they are still regarded as commodities that can be sold by their foreign agents, and governments and other institutions that support slavery work behind a veil of denial and subterfuge. Like the nannies in Toronto who are forced to work as caregivers hoping it is a path planted with roses towards Canadian citizenship.

Anywhere there is poverty and desperation, there will be agents who’ll negotiate, lure and entrap their victims into slavery. The world market still runs on the profit principle and the trade in human lives and labour—as it has for centuries before—remains lucrative and viable.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

English without an accent

Imagine yourself in a conversation. You open your mouth and they say. “Oh, you have a ‘beautiful’ accent.” What they’re saying is: “You don’t know how to speak English.”

If you speak English with an American or British accent, then you have mastered the language without an accent. But if you happen to interchange your vowels and consonants such as f and v or e and i, as they are frequently interchanged in the Filipino vernacular and the various Philippine dialects, then you are speaking English with an accent.

When you hear a Filipino shamelessly bragging about someone, a fellow countryman, who speaks English without an accent, that’s like rubbing salt to the wound. Especially if he’s reminding you that speaking perfect English like a native-born American or Canadian will help you land a job or go up in the career ladder.

For immigrants to Canada and the U.S., accents still do matter. Sounding foreign can hinder careers and has led to accent-discrimination lawsuits. People with accents have often been ridiculed or not taken seriously outside of their social circle.

That’s why the Ontario Human Rights Code states that it is a public policy in Ontario to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every person and to provide for equal rights and opportunities without discrimination. The primary purpose of these provisions of the Human Rights Code is to create a climate of understanding and mutual respect for the dignity and worth of each person so that he or she feels a part of the community and feels able to contribute to the community.

While the Ontario Human Rights Code, like most other provincial human rights legislation in Canada, does not explicitly identify “language” as a prohibited ground of discrimination, complaints of discriminatory action or behaviour are allowed under a number of related grounds such as ancestry, ethnic origin, place of origin and, in some circumstances, race. In other words, language is considered as an element of a complaint based on any of these grounds.

At present, Quebec and the Yukon Territory are the only Canadian jurisdictions which specifically state that language is a prohibited ground of discrimination in the area of employment.

Similarly, many courts and governmental agencies in the United States also consider language discrimination to be a form of discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, which is prohibited by well-established laws such as the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state laws like the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The first language we learn growing up is usually the language spoken by our parents or those who take care of us as children. Inevitably, there is a direct link between the language we speak or the accent with which we speak a particular language on the one hand, and our ancestry, ethnic origin or place of origin on the other.

Our accent is also often associated with our mother tongue or place of origin. Thus, a Filipino will always have an accent that is related to the way we speak English back home. Traces of Tagalog, Ilocano or Visayan dialects will always be with us when we speak English. For those of us who speak it as a first language, which is only common to the Filipino upper-middle class, their English has a rhotic accent, heavily influenced by American pronunciation, meaning that the phoneme /r/ is pronounced before consonants and at the end of syllables, and the “r-coloured vowel” is used as a syllable nucleus. Like the “Arneow” accent of the more articulate graduates from the Ateneo de Manila University or graduates of the University of the Philippines who speak English with an American affectation.

Thus, the Human Rights Code can be infringed when someone is denied employment, service or housing because of his or her accent because in these situations, the underlying discrimination is often actually based on ancestry, place of origin or ethnic origin.

There are also situations where a single incident that is not substantial enough to constitute a breach of the Human Rights Code may nevertheless create a “poisoned environment” for some individuals. A “poisoned environment” can arise when a person or a group of people are treated differently for reasons related to the language they speak.

Consider, for example, the remarks of a law professor who tells his class that those who speak English with a foreign accent do not make good lawyers, and should not be admitted to law schools in Ontario to occupy spaces that should be held by Canadians. This kind of remark may sufficiently poison the environment for those students in the class whose first language is not English and who speak English with an accent.

Or a career development seminar where the instructor or mentor tells his class that speaking English with an accent will not enhance their careers in institutions or workplaces where English is the only spoken language allowed. This comment targets new Canadians, many of whom immigrate from other regions of the world where English is not the official or native language.

There are, of course, legitimate exceptions. Proficiency in English may be a reasonable and legitimate requirement for employment, as long as it is established as a bona fide occupational requirement. The requirement for English proficiency must bear an objective relationship to the essential requirements of the job and that it is imposed in good faith.

In the United States, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an employer may require the employee to speak English when there is a business necessity, but any requirement that employees speak English all the time is discriminatory. If an employer believes the English-only rule is critical for business purposes, employees have to be told when they must speak English and the consequences for violating the rule. Any negative employment decision based on breaking the English-only rule is considered evidence of discrimination if the employer did not tell employees in advance about the rule. Employers must also show a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for the denial of employment opportunity because of the applicant's or employee's accent or manner of speaking. Employers should consider whether an applicant's accent or manner of speaking would have a detrimental effect on job performance.

In her book, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States, Ros Lippi-Green scrutinized American attitudes toward the English language, and exposed the way in which language is used to maintain and perpetuate social structures and unequal power relations. The author said that American employers discriminate on the basis of language use, and the judicial system also uses language to protect the status quo.

All this talk about multiculturalism is of no use if we cannot actively embrace others and the differences among us. Whether an employee or a job applicant’s ancestry is Mexican, Ukrainian, Filipino, Arab, Chinese or Indian, or any other nationality, everyone is entitled to the same employment opportunities as anyone else.

After all, even the English language in itself has a wide range of accents that developed and persisted for a long period of time. In England, there is the prestige or posh English accent known as Received Pronunciation that has its roots in the educated language of southeastern England. East of London, there is the Cockney accent. Liverpool also has a unique accent of its own called the Scouse accent. Other parts of the country have distinctively different accents. By and large, the Queen’s English has survived and no one is complaining why there are so many weird accents.

North American English is quite the same, which is the collective term for the dialects of the United States and Canada. There are also certain traditional accents found in eastern New England, New York City, the Southern United States and among African-Americans. Three major dialect areas can be found in Canada: Western/Central Canada, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland.

In Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children, et al v. Ann Arbor School District, the U.S. federal court found that it was appropriate for the school board to take steps in helping teachers to recognize the home language of African-American students and to use that knowledge in teaching them reading skills in standard English. The main issue in this case was alleged discrimination against children whose home language was “black English,” or what is now more popularly referred to as “ebonics.”

Language discrimination is committed when a person is treated differently for the way he or she speaks. People who are discriminated against for the manner they speak may find it difficult to get a job. Some people have even lost their jobs for the way they speak. When we condone language discrimination, such as perpetuating the notion that Filipinos must speak English without an accent in order to survive and be successful in the workplace, it becomes a primary cause for social inequality. Worst of all, it also amounts to an unforgiveable denial of our own ancestral roots.

This last weekend, I read a letter to the Toronto Star where the reader expressed his opinion about an article that he found highly offensive of the former federal Liberal Party leader, Stephane Dion. The article has suggested that Dion, who is from Quebec, would be remembered for his “fractured English.”

The reader was appalled that English Canada, in this day and age, would not accept that a non-anglophone could speak English without an accent or without "fractures."

“That attitude is highly condescending and insulting, not only toward francophones, but also all other Canadians whose mother tongue is not English,” he wrote.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Silencing the people a dangerous idea

An activist judge is no longer a rarity nowadays. The United States’ Supreme Court is a clear example of the push-and-pull tussle between judges who favour judicial activism on one hand, and judicial restraint on the other. While some judges are for sustaining the concept of a “living Constitution,” others see it as contrary to a judge’s sworn allegiance to uphold the Constitution because it encourages judges to write their own laws. Yet, judicial activism has been largely confined inside the courtroom and very rarely exhibited in public.

But not the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. Chief Justice Reynato Puno is never shy to speak out his mind on legal issues that aim to protect the economic, social and cultural rights of the poor. In a public forum organized by BAYAN and the National Union of People’s Lawyers last year, he said that the Supreme Court will consider expanding the writ of amparo, and will address harassment suits against those who exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed economic, social and cultural rights.

Chief Justice Puno may simply be stressing the duty of the courts to protect minority rights under the present regime where a sitting government is prepared to harness all its political resources to distort constitutional democracy or the rule of law. But when a judge represents the political sentiments of the day in public forums, does he cross the divide between the separation of powers and thus subvert the constitutional process?

Rightly or wrongly, the Chief Justice has struck a mother lode of controversy, particularly in regard to harassment suits which are popularly known in legal circles as “SLAPP suits,” an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

SLAPP dates back to the earliest years of the United States when citizens occasionally were sued for speaking out against corruption in government. Such lawsuits were commonly dismissed by the courts and SLAPPs fell into general disuse until the 1960s and 1970s. During those decades, a wave of political activism concerning issues from the environment to minority rights sparked suits claiming defamation, libel and business interference from affected parties, mostly corporations and big business interests. By the 1980s and 1990s, SLAPPs have been observed as seriously hampering participation in the U.S. political system.

“Thousands of SLAPPs have been filed in the last two decades, tens of thousands of Americans have been SLAPPed, and still more have been muted or silenced by the threat," write law professors George Pring and Penelope Canan of the University of Denver who coined the acronym while studying this form of litigation in 1984.

SLAPPs have been directed against individuals and groups that have spoken in public forums on a wide variety of issues, such as against real estate development, the actions of public officials, environmental damage or pollution and unwanted land use. They have also been used against those who worked publicly for the rights of consumers, workers, women, minorities and others. SLAPP defendants have been sued for apparently lawful actions such as circulating a petition, writing to a local newspaper, speaking at a public meeting, reporting violations of the law, or participating in a peaceful demonstration.

In their studies, Pring and Canan found that “filers of SLAPPs rarely win in court yet often ‘win’ in the real world, achieving their political agendas.” They also found that “SLAPP targets who fight back seldom lose in court yet are frequently devastated and depoliticized and discourage others from speaking out – ‘chilled’ in the parlance of the First Amendment commentary.”

The goals of the SLAPP plaintiff are accomplished when the defendant yields to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion and abandons the criticism. Although a SLAPP filer usually loses in court, he or she may achieve the goal of silencing future political opposition.

Initially, Pring and Canan saw such suits as attacks on traditional free speech and regarded them as mere intimidation lawsuits. But as they studied them further, they discovered something more important was at stake, that it was not just free speech under siege, but the right to petition government for a redress of grievances, an older and even more central part of the U.S. Constitution.

The numerous SLAPP cases in the Philippines are nothing new but the continuation of the practice of powerful corporations and big business in bringing the formidable powers of government and industry together for the purpose of suppressing the views of people with complaints against the system. Corporate libel lawsuits are being filed against those who oppose or criticize the activities of these corporations hoping they will be SLAPPed into submission.

The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), and Kalikasan-People’s Network for the environment, for instance, have reported a number of harassment suits filed against their members and supporters. Peasants in Cagayan Valley and in Cadiz were charged with arson and theft to silence them from protesting against their landlords, prompting the KMP secretary-general to describe the charges as tantamount to criminalization of agrarian cases. A similar incident involving workers on strike who were charged with various common crimes could be characterized as criminalization of labour disputes. In Sibuyan, 80 teachers were charged with illegal assembly and grave coercion. In Nueva Vizcaya, Oxiana Royalco Resources Mining Company filed a petition for permanent injunction against 24 leaders of indigenous people to prevent them from continuing their barricade.

In December 2007, a Philippine regional trial court dismissed a P5.5 million civil case filed by Davao-based banana exporter Lapanday Agricultural and Development Corporation (Ladeco) against toxicologist Dr. Romeo v. Quijano, president of Pesticide Action Network Philippines, and his daughter Ilang-Ilang Quijano, a journalist.

Separate civil and criminal cases were also filed by Ladeco against the Quijanos after they published an article exposing the health and environmental effects of pesticide poisoning in a Davao banana plantation. The criminal libel case was dismissed in 2002.

Although the court awarded attorney’s fees to the Quijanos in the amount of P50,000, they were denied their claim for moral damages. The Quijanos spent more than P300, 000 in legal costs for their defence.

Meanwhile, another libel case in the amount of P10 million was filed by Lafayette Mining against the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC-Phils), a research NGO and its executive director. Lafayette Mining Limited is an Australian-owned mining company that controls the Arroyo administration’s flagship mining project in Rapu-rapu island in Albay. CEC was charged with libel for producing and distributing a handout entitled “Rapu-Rapu, A Struggle Against Mining Liberalization and Plunder in the Philippines” to stockholders of Lafayette in Australia. The Lafayette Mining project has incurred two mine tailings in 2005 killing fish in the barangays adjacent to the mine site and the nearby coastline.

SLAPPs are targeting individuals or groups of individuals, labour unions, community residents, or social advocacy groups for exercising their freedom of speech or of the press or their right to peaceably assemble or petition the government for redress of grievances on matters of public concern. These harassment suits are threatening the very foundation of citizen involvement and public participation in democracy.

You can be sued simply for exercising your cherished right to speak out on a public issue, for telling your government what you think, want or believe in. All the while we have always thought that this right is constitutionally protected, yet government and industry can be in cahoots in silencing those who speak out or express their opinions against public matters.

Those who file SLAPP suits have been effectively using the legal system in quieting public opinion. When you have been SLAPPed, you have no other choice but to mount a defence and legal representation is very costly. While the SLAPP filer may eventually lose, you could end up the bigger loser.

Some states in the United States have already enacted anti-SLAPP legislation that makes it very difficult to file and initiate a SLAPP suit. Other jurisdictions have also allowed SLAPPbacks which enable defendants to recover damages for malicious prosecution and abuse of process.

It is quite human nature to feel offended or to react with anger when you become the target of a criticism. When you have the resources and the power, there is a very strong temptation to sue your critics because it could be an effective way of silencing negative opinions or adverse publicity. In his heyday as a media baron, Conrad Black used to sue those who wrote unpleasant stories about him or his newspaper empire. His libel claims suited him well since the cases he brought against his critics were settled mostly in his favour.

This also reminds me, although on a smaller scale, of two Filipino community organizations in Toronto who initiated defamation proceedings against individuals who were very vocal in their opposition and criticism of the leaders of these organizations. Imagine if SLAPPs can be effectively filed in much more complex public activities involving big industry and the government against national or international associations or labour unions, then how much is it easier to silence criticism at the scale of a community organization? In any event, the damage to the foundation of democratic participation and the exercise of individual freedoms at bottom is equally identical.

Public participation is akin to empowerment and is a vital part of democratic governance. It is also a potential solution to the crisis in public trust in many governments today. Thus, in many jurisdictions the right to public participation is enshrined by law. For example, the right to petition has been part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In the Philippines, the right to peaceably assemble to redress a grievance is protected by Section 4 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution.

Despite constitutional protection, SLAPPs, however, continue the use of the legal system for the purpose of intimidation and as a threat to citizen involvement and public participation. A vigilant citizenry must not fall asleep whenever a SLAPP suit is filed and must defend it by all means and not be intimidated into silence.

Suppressing people to the point of muteness is antithetical to democracy. Silencing people who have a grievance to redress against a corporation or their government is one step closer to dictatorship.