Racism and Migration: The Saga of Filipinos and Other Asians

Canada – one of the favored destinations of Filipino migrants – is not a promised land, contrary to popular notions. Although Canada considers itself a “multi-color” country, many migrants – including Filipino job-seekers and settlers – remain objects of racism, job discrimination and exploitation. This Northern American country softens when it needs foreign nationals to develop its economy, but also clamps down during periods of crisis, according to a Canadian working for migrants’ rights.


Racism is an ideological and political concept that considers that some are higher on developmental and intelligence scale than others — it is an offshoot of the class system and has been developed to explain, theorize and legitimize the colonial and later imperialist project. It legitimizes the conquering, controlling and exploitation of one country by another, of one people by another, of one race by another.

Capitalism was built — and the original capitalist fortunes were amassed — through a policy of systemic racism – in the Americas on outright genocide against the Indians* and the slave trade. Africa was devastated, with its youngest and fittest young men and women dragged off to the “new world” to cut sugar and plant cotton on the plantations.

Slavery also existed in Canada with some local churches having their own slaves.

As an integral part of the imperialist system, racism is also alive in Canada, to which my parents brought me as a migrant from England when I was five years old.

My adopted country, Canada, may be a land of immigrants but it is not a country open to just any migrants and refugees. The waves of migration have corresponded to the economic, political and ideological needs of the capitalist system in Canada — relatively open when the system is in expansion or in a period of growth and repressive and closed when in crisis, as it is at the moment.

During the expansion period of the 18th and 19th centuries, original immigrants came from Western Europe — England and France, the two major colonial powers who fought for control of Canada. They also came from other countries such as British-controlled Ireland, as well as Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, etc. This was primarily a wave of “white” migrants. It was then enlarged to include Eastern Europe. Many Ukrainians were brought in to open up the farm lands of western Canada, for example. There was a massive influx of European immigrants during the post-WWII period when Canada’s capitalist economy was expanding rapidly.

During the Cold War, the door was open to Hungarians and other East Europeans, as long as they demonstrated they were clearly anti-Communist. Again these were primarily white migrants.

Many countries never allow migrants to settle and become citizens. This is a way of maintaining a relatively powerless work force who live under the threat of being sent back. Canada seems to be an exception since it is a land of immigrants — a huge territory that was settled by migrants. And with a low birth rate today, it still needs the migrants to sustain its economy. So Canada seems to provide more options for the migrant worker. If you fulfill certain criteria (and jump through enough hoops) there is a possibility you can apply for landed immigrant status and eventually become a citizen — opening the door to bringing over your family. This is the carrot Canada dangles to ensure it gets some of the world’s best and brightest migrants.

Carrot and stick

But behind the carrot hides the stick. Canada, like the United States and other developed countries, uses the immigrants / refugees as cheap labour and to do jobs others (that is, immigrants who have been there longer) refuse to do (primarily because of lousy working conditions and low salaries).

Canada’s immigration laws have been historically racially-biased but in the wake of Sept 11, as in the United States and other countries, there have been moves to step up the repressive elements, particularly targetting Arabs and Muslims, but fundamentally hitting all people of colour. Mosques have been burned and Sikhs, who stand out because of their dress, have been attacked.

The Canadian government is now fast-tracking a new immigration act, C-11, that will make it more difficult for people fleeing war and repression to be accepted as refugees, at a time when Canadian foreign policy — the Canadian government being the servile lapdog of the US — is creating more refugees by supporting the carpet bombing of Afghanistan.

There is also a new anti-terrorism act that gives police the right to arrest anyone simply on suspicion. It is a return to the ultra-repressive McCarthy era of the 1950s – only this time it targets not only Communists but any person of colour as well. Non-white Members of Parliament and the Senate are asking that a “sunset clause” be included in the law — that a time limit be set on certain of the most repressive measures — because they understand the fundamental racist implications of the legislation.

Canada’s policies towards migrants are, of course, not unique: racist policies towards migrants also exist in Europe — Turks and Vietnamese were allowed into Germany in large numbers when needed and now face discrimination and racism; migrants from former colonies in the Caribbean along with Indians and Pakistanis were allowed into the United Kingdom when their cheap labour was required (now they face racism and street violence as the jobs are hard to find and the white workers turn on their brown and black neighbours), in France it is the same with the Algerians and Moroccans and with Indonesians in the Netherlands.

Canada has allowed in a limited number of refugees, taking advantage of imperialist wars of conquest and internal wars fomented by imperialism to skim off a number of the most talented peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But the numbers are very small compared to the millions of refugees relatively poor countries such as Pakistan and Iran have been obliged to absorb in the face of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Now they face increased pressure to accept even more in the face of the American aggression under way at this time. (Compare this also to the recent decision of the Australian government to refuse to accept just a few hundred desperate Afghans and other refugees who tried to enter by ship.)

Racism not unique

Of course, it would be unfair to say that racism is unique to Canada or just the developed world — it also exists in the Philippines as we can see in attitudes to tribal peoples and Muslims. We only have to think how the Saudi Arabian regime uses racism to divide and maintain control of its huge migrant population. Just imagine what would happen if they all got together and decided to put the extremely reactionary and fundamentalist Saudi regime in its place. Racism is a relic of colonialism and imperialism and as such has to be fought and eventually eradicated, wherever it exists.

At this time I would like to look at some particular examples of racism and the migrant and immigrant experience in Canada:

First, the Chinese experience. Original Chinese settlers, mostly poorer peasants from southern China first arrived in 19th century to search for gold. When the Canadian government decided to build a cross-Canada railway it went in search of cheap, hardworking labour. They found it in China. Thousands of Chinese were brought in to build the most difficult and dangerous sections through the Canadian Rocky Mountains. At least one worker died for every mile of track laid. When the railway was completed, the government decided it no longer wanted the Chinese and so imposed a Head Tax on Chinese wanting to migrate to Canada. This was raised to $500 by 1904 (we have estimated that someone could have bought two houses with that kind of money at the beginning of the last century). Imagine the debt load that a poor Chinese family would assume in order to be able to send off a son to Gold Mountain, as Canada become known.

The Head Tax remained in place until 1923, when in the face of an economic crisis following WWI, the Canadian government adopted an even more repressive law — the Chinese Exclusion Act — essentially excluding any Chinese from entering Canada. This remained in effect until 1949 (when it was dropped, partly because of the pressure from Chinese who had fought in the Canadian Armed Forces).

Racist laws against Chinese and other immigrants of colour remained in the books until the late ‘60s (and in practice have never been wiped out). Recently the Canadian government instituted another form of the head tax, a $975 tax on migrants applying for citizenship that adds up to thousands of dollars per family. There has been a long but to date unsuccessful struggle to seek justice, an apology and the return of the $23 million stolen from the Chinese immigrants through the Head Tax. Some have pointed out that the Canadian government gave $23 million to the Canadian Pacific Railways to help build the railway — so in fact the Chinese did not only build the railway across Canada, they helped pay for it.

Asian communities

Other Asian communites have also faced racism and discrimination. The Japanese in Canada had all their property and belongings removed from them because they happened to look like people in Japan during WWII. Many of them had been born in Canada and had never seen that country. Sikhs escaping discrimination at home attempted to land on the West coast of Canada in the early 20th Century, only to be turned away with many dying as a result.

The Canadian government had attempted to hide this history of racism and discrimination behind an official policy of “Multi-culturalism” — enacted during the 1970s. Organizations were set up and funded that essentially looked only at the cultural elements — at its most ludicrous migrants and immigrants were funded to dress up in their traditional costumes and do traditional dances. This policy glosses over the fact that Canada is a multi-national country, where Quebecois, Black Canadians, Chinese Canadians and others share the country with the native people and with immigrants from all over the globe. Multi-culturalism ignores the fact that Canada is in fact a “prison house” of nationalities where racism, exploitation and oppression are all too present. Canada has to acknowledge this reality in order to start dealing with it.

One of the latest waves of Asian migration to Canada has been from the Philippines. Many of the early migrants were political and economic refugees during the Marcos dictatorship. They were educated and included many nurses and doctors (part of the ongoing pattern in the Philippines) where young well-trained professionals leave the country in huge numbers only to be too often de-skilled in Canada — that is, forced into jobs well below their training. This process is facilitated because Canada refuses to recognize the professional and academic degrees of migrants.

This de-skilling includes Filipinas who make up the latest wave of migration. Nurses, teachers, even engineers, enter Canada under the Live-in Caregiver Program (LCP), and as Mail Order Brides and sex workers. We have seen a definite feminization of migration, particularly over the past 15 years.

Filipina domestic worker

I would like to share with you the case of a Filipina nanny in Montreal, Melca Salvador, who some of you may have heard of. In August 2000, Melca received a letter from the Canadian government stating that she was going to be deported. Melca had come to Canada under the Live-in Caregivers Program (LCP) after working as a domestic worker in Egypt. The LCP was set up by the Canadian government to bring in women to take care of our children and elderly. [Many women in Canada are obliged to work and there is no sufficient daycare; for a relatively cheap price better-off families can now get a caregiver from the Philippines to take care of their children or elderly relative.]

Melca’s problems began when shortly after arriving in Canada she found out she was pregnant. Melca was soon after thrown out of her first employer’s house. Pregnant and soon with a small son in her arms, Melca was unable to find regular work. As a result, she was unable to fulfill the criteria of the LCP program — to work 24 months out of the first three years in Canada. She did everything possible to find work (even working under the table) and never asking a penny from the Canadian state, but still the Canadian government wanted to throw her out. Melca, who had at that time just been elected vice chair of PINAY, the organization of Filipinas in Montreal, decided to fight. PINAY and soon other groups across Canada like my organization, the Centre for Philippine Concerns, took up her cause.

Thousands of people were contacted, letters and e-mails written, faxes sent, and petitions signed across Canada. A media committee ensured wide coverage in the English and French press. A door-to-door campaign raised support in the Philippine community and across other communites — crossing lines of race and national background. Priests talked about her case from the pulpit and politicians in the various parties were contacted. Many people were disgusted that a woman would be thrown out of Canada for giving birth to her son, Richard.

Early this year, Melca was obliged to go into hiding with her son so the immigration authorities could not find her.

This caused much stress on Melca and her four-year-old child. Immediately we decided to organize weekly picket lines and demonstrations in front of the Canadian immigration offices in downtown Montreal. Similar actions were organized elsewhere in Canada and even overseas. After 15 weeks of trudging through snow, sleet and rain Melca and Richard received news that they could stay in Canada. The campaign was victorious and Melca now lives with her son in Montreal and is working as a cashier in a fruit store.

As we have seen, racism exists not only in the selection process for immigrants and refugees but it also continues for the migrants once they manage to enter Canada.

Filipino youth in Montreal

This is particularly true for the children of migrants.

Many sons and daughters of Filipino and Filipina migrant workers in Canada spent years in the Philippines before joining their parents in Canada. This separation has a high cost. When the families get back together, it is like “strangers reuniting” (which, incidentally, is the title of one of our films). There is much tension in the families as the children cannot understand why their parents would have abandoned them. There is also high expectation among the children: after reunification they are surprised that the parents who sent them money to help them from school still work long hours and cannot be at home all the time. This causes stress, which is compounded by problems of integrating into new schools and learning to live with a new difficulty they did not face at home — that of racism.
Left on their own and with difficulties adapting, many young Filipinos join gangs for company but also to be with people who speak their own language and who understand them. But the local police target the young Filipinos hanging around the Metro stations and they are hassled, rounded up and sometimes arrested, often violently.

In British Columbia, 25 youths at the Vancouver Technical School were attacked with rocks in September 1999.
Anti-Filipino graffiti appeared such as “All Flips must die!” (Flips is a derogatory terms for Filipinos.) Most of these youths were recently arrived sons and daughters whose mothers were domestic workers who had come in under the LCP program. Again, some were involved in gangs. The Filipino community organized around the youths and parents to form FILCAR (Filipino Canadians Against Racism). The struggle continues with the school board refusing to recognize the problem of systemic racism. School officials point to the face Canada is “Multi-cultural” — so there can be no problems of race.

In Montreal as well, the youth are now organizing as part of the Kabataang Montreal to deal with the problems of gang members and to help Filipino youth understand why their parents and they were forced to migrate and how to deal with racist attitudes and practices among local police forces.

Struggles of migrants in factories

Many migrant parents do not have much time to spend with their children. Many former domestic workers, for example, go to work in the cheap labour factories — in textiles, clothing and electronics — after they receive their immigration papers. Here the wages are low, the working hours long – often 12 hour days or more — and very repressive. If migrant workers try to organize to better their conditions or to build a union they are often fired. In order to assist them to organize and fight for their rights the Filipino Workers Support Group and other organizations recently set up the Immigrant Workers Centre in Montreal. Workers at the centre learn how to organize unions and how to use the laws that exist to defend their rights. They also learn how the capitalist economy works. In this way they see the enemy not as the worker of another colour, religion or nationality beside them, but as the capitalist boss who is calling the shots and pocketing the profits.

The capitalist system has learned that dividing workers upon lines of colour, nationality and religion is a powerful tool. Once workers get united in facing their oppressors they can be a formidable force.

Struggle against racism

Racism is an integral part of the process of migration. Racism was at the heart of the system of colonialism and semi-colonialism that subjugated the majority of the people of the world to the dictates of a few northern countries.
Racism also guides the policies around migration and immigration to the countries of the North. And it is also used as a divide-and-rule tactic once the migrants have entered the country to work in the homes and factories.

Understanding the causes of migration and the nature of the capitalist and imperialist system is the key to helping migrants and immigrants oppose racism and racist laws and policies. It will not, however, be eradicated as long as the present global capitalist system continues to rule the roost. This is why the Centre for Philippine Concerns puts its full support behind the Philippine people’s struggle for national democracy and true liberation. Bulatlat.com

*Author is from the Centre for Philippine Concerns based in Montreal. This article, presented during the International Migrant Conference on Labor Export and Forced Migration Amidst Globalization in Manila last Nov. 5-9, 2001, is being reprinted by Bulatlat.com.

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