Managing the Filipino diaspora

Last Thursday night, Jose Brillantes, the Filipino ambassador to Canada, dropped in on a small house party in Copper Ridge.

Last Thursday night, Jose Brillantes, the Filipino ambassador to Canada, dropped in on a small house party in Copper Ridge.

The ambassador shook hands, dined on traditional Filipino cuisine and socialized with members of Whitehorse’s growing Filipino community.

For Canadian expats who are hard-pressed to remember the last time their ambassador came to their dinner party, it’s clear that Brillantes isn’t your standard ambassador.

In his opinion, he’s not part of your standard ambassadorial corps.

Most ambassadors deal almost exclusively with economic and political diplomacy, said Brillantes.

“But in the Philippines, we have a third mission,” he said.

“It is enshrined within our constitution that the Philippine government takes care of its citizens both domestically and overseas,” said Brillantes.

“That becomes a tall order, because it’s really not easy to take care of the welfare of your citizens overseas

Almost 2,900 Filipinos leave the Philippines every day to work abroad — adding to a global Filipino diaspora of eight million, which is equal to 10 per cent of the country’s resident population.

The Philippines is Canada’s third-largest supplier of immigrants, providing needed streams of English-speaking workers to sections of the country ravished by labour shortages. 

In Canada, as anywhere else, their ambassadorial corps are right behind them.

While no consulate exists in Whitehorse, a hotline connects the Canadian Filipino community to its embassy. Callers can be connected to a human voice at all hours of the day or night.

“Should you need us, just give us a call and we will respond,” he said.

“Many, many countries are using the Philippines as a model,” said Brillantes.

“I am embarrassed to say it, but I think it is true,” he said.

The Philippines provides support to its citizens before departure, during departure and once they have arrived in their destination country, he said.

A significant part of their work is preventing Filipino immigrants from being conned by corrupt labour recruiters.

And, should they decide to return to the Philippines, the government provides them with a comprehensive program of reintegration.

Remittances, payments made by foreign workers to families in the Philippines have become an enormous aspect of the Filipino economy.

“It is not by design, but it is the effect,” said Brillantes.

Through normal banking channels, US$1.5 billion in foreign remittances flows into the Philippines every year.

Adding another $2 billion that flows in annually through underground banking channels, the Philippines receives upwards of $20 billion in foreign remittances per year — equal to roughly 14 per cent of the country’s GDP.

If Filipinos maintain a strong connection to their homeland, they will ultimately return to “get involved with the process of nation building.”

A recent law allows dual citizenship between the two countries — ending the days when Filipinos needed to forsake their Filipino citizenship in favour of Canadian residency.

“They have the best of both worlds,” he said.

Maintaining a strong Filipino culture is especially easy within Canada’s cultural “kaleidoscope,” as opposed to the “melting pots” of the United States and Australia, said Brillantes.

He gestured to the ongoing dinner party upstairs.

"There is a mixture here; we have all the Canadian friends, and you have the Filipino friends. The Filipino friends are talking in Filipino, and nobody seems to really mind,” said Brillantes.

“In other countries they would be very careful when they speak their own language, because they might offend whoever is listening,” he said.

Brillantes’ service in the diplomatic corps has meant that, at times, he has needed to act as the representative for a tumultuous home government.

In 2001, Philippine President Joseph Estrada was peacefully removed from office at the end of a months-long alleged political scandal. After failed impeachment proceedings, Estrada’s vice-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was swept into power with the backing of the Philippine Armed Forces and the Supreme Court.

At the time, Brillantes was the Philippine’s ambassador to Malaysia.

“You represent your government, but more importantly you represent your president. So when there is a change in the presidency, you represent the new president,” said Brillantes.

“Unless of course, you are absolutely in disagreement, in which case you have no choice but to resign — and get out,” he said.

In 1986, after the Philippine’s People Power Revolution overthrew the 20-year authoritarian rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, most in the country’s diplomatic corps were ready to serve the country’s new leader.

“Quite a number of ambassadors expressed their disagreement with the then-current president and were ready to join the new administration,” said Brillantes.

Political unrest in a small region of the southern Philippines has displaced thousands of families, but few of these refugees have come the way of Canada.

“There are some applicants, but it’s really few and far between … the Canadian government is very careful about this — they will screen you with a fine-toothed comb,” said Brillantes.

“If you are not really being hounded by government, and cannot show that you are in danger if you go back, you will not be accepted by Canada,” he said.

When political refugees are accepted into Canada, the situation is “win-win,” said Brillantes.

“Somebody who is truly a refugee is unhappy with his home government and with his status at home, so if he can get out of that it means that he betters himself, and at the same time, the country is rid of somebody who is a troublemaker,” said Brillantes.

“Here in Canada, they are able to bring in a program for rehabilitation and get the best out of someone who would otherwise have been useless, in terms of how he looks at himself and how he looks at his own government,” he said.

With Filipinos scattered to all corners of the globe, Brillantes maintains that his role is much smoother than that of his fellow ambassadors in other, less-developed countries, such as in the Middle East.

“They don’t have the built-in-defences provisions that protect them from exploitation,” he said.

Filipinos have brought their culture, language and food to Canada — and they have also brought elements of their politics. Bayan, a leftist political coalition started under the Marcos regime, opened its first Canadian office just nine days ago.

“(Canadian) is a democracy — they are given forum to speak out their minds. I am certainly not very happy about this, but this is allowed by the Canadian government,” said Brillantes.

“That’s what I keep saying, one of my main themes in talking to the Filipinos here is that they should be very grateful to Canada because of the free culture,” he said.