The intersection of Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue is ordinarily a bustling corner of north Toronto, an energetic but otherwise unassuming slice of real estate that many Filipino immigrants have claimed as their own. On Sunday, July 22, however, shouts of “Makibaka, Huwag Matakot!” could be heard reverberating off the local karinderya walls, as a coalition of progressive-minded Filipinos rallied at the Bathurst-Wilson Parkette in opposition to Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s State of the Nation Address.
Members of the progressive Filipino-Canadian organizations Bayan Canada, Migrante Canada, Filipino Migrant Workers Movement, Binnadang – Migrante Ontario, IWWORKERS, Gabriela Ontario, and Anakbayan Toronto lined the curbside from mid-afternoon until the evening to air their grievances with President Aquino’s SONA speech, which was to be broadcast in the Philippines on July 23. With their organizations’ flags dancing back and forth across the humid summer currents, dozens of demonstrators, many clad in red, took turns on a megaphone, deflating many of the Aquino administration’s alleged victories. Giant placards strewn with the statistical wreckage of the Philippine government’s track record on human rights and economic prosperity jutted out into the street, attracting Sunday passersby queuing for space at the bus stop.
The State of the Nation Address is given once a year by the President of the Philippines. Part year-in-review, part look forward, it is traditionally used as a political vehicle to remind the public of the current administration’s achievements along with its promises for the future well-being of the Philippines. The organizers of Sunday’s rally predict a cloudy forecast for the country’s 95 million people.
“We must reveal the true purpose of SONA to the many Filipinos who are suffering back home. This is a State of the Nation for the wealthy from their president,” commented Jay Jay Carpio of Filipino Migrant Workers Movement.
The rally was led by Rhea Gamana of Anakbayan Toronto, a progressive youth organization under the umbrella of Bayan Canada. Gamana’s thunderous voice betrayed her petite frame. The megaphone easily carried her voice to the four corners of the intersection, where even docile customers at the local watering hole inched closer to get an earful. Fellow demonstrators dutifully distributed a leaflet detailing the plight of the Filipino people both in the Philippines and abroad in Canada.
Petronila Cleto of Gabriela Ontario, a Filipino womens’ advocacy organization, lambasted Aquino’s SONA for its lack of substance.
“We want to call down what the President says is the State of the Nation Address. We think this is nothing but a series of empty boasts and lies. He should take his responsibilities as the President seriously and fix the economy.”
Under the watch of President Aquino, the number of unemployed and underemployed has ballooned from 10.9 million in 2010 to 11.7 million in 2012, or roughly 12% of the total population. This, in contrast with the unprecedented growth in the net worth of the 40 richest Filipinos from $23 billion to $47 billion in the same period, has vast sectors of the Filipino working and peasant classes ready to incite open protest against the current administration. Thousands of demonstrators were expected to take to the streets on July 23 to protest against the 2012 SONA.
Monico Florentino, a demonstrator, approached people waiting idly for their buses and engaged them in friendly conversation about the state of the Philippine economy.
“I’m here at the parkette in support of these organizations to bring to attention the plight of overseas Filipino workers who won’t be mentioned in the State of the Nation Address by President Aquino,” said Florentino, who is a former Philippine government employee.
Over 4,500 Filipinos join the global diaspora every day, fanning out across the globe on mournful journeys to send remittances home to their waiting families. 30% to 40% of Filipinos rely on remittances to stay afloat in the Southeast Asian republic, in dire conditions compounded by the recent global economic crisis. Soaring prices of food, fuel, and post-secondary tuition have the average Filipino family on the ropes. The minimum wage in the National Capital Region is PHP426, or roughly $10. The actual cost of living for the average family of six, however, is PHP1,008 – 54% more than what minimum wage earners take home. One-third of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day.
Demonstrators bravely withstood the full onslaught of the summer sun and stifling humidity to impart their perspectives to their fellow kababayans. Alex Felipe, an organizer with Bayan Canada, an alliance of progressive, anti-imperialist Filipino organizations, went on a tirade against the injustices perpetrated by the Aquino administration.
“The true state of the nation is that we remain a nation for the benefit of local elites and their foreign masters – a state we cannot stand to live with. We demand that Noynoy stop playing rhetorical games with the truth!”
Under Aquino’s Oplan Bayanihan, over 90 government critics and activists have been murdered. 107 of the 385 current political prisoners have been arrested under his watch. On October 12, 2011, Aquino ratified new policy allowing mining companies to create and operate private militias, putting indigenous communities and human rights defenders at greater risk. Many, if not all, suspects in extrajudicial killings and disappearances are also elements of the country’s armed forces and national police force.
For their part, the youth contingent, represented by Yshmael Cabana of Anakbayan Toronto, focused their criticism on the current administration’s failure to provide livelihoods for the nation’s young people.
“Never has there been a government so callous in glorifying their programs of neoliberal globalization even though there is overwhelming evidence to show that these policies are destroying the education, employment, and culture of the youth,” Cabana said in his address.
In a nation where 35% of the population is under the age of 14, prospects for young people remain as dismal as they were upon President Aquino’s inauguration. 50% of children aged 11 to 15 are out of school, many working in physically demanding and dangerous conditions for a pittance in order to support their families. Noynoy’s K to 12 education reform, an extension of two years for the current primary and secondary public school systems, has been touted as an initiative that would give Filipinos an edge in the competitive global labour market. However, due to a severe lack of funding and investment in relevant infrastructure, this has largely fallen flat. Classroom overcrowding and a shortage of teachers have instead posed health and logistical challenges which the government has treated with its characteristic apathy.
The energy with which the demonstrators carried out the rally seemed at odds with the lazy hubbub of a sunny summer afternoon. Traffic crawled noisily by throughout the event, with several motorists honking their horns in support of the demonstrators or in irritation at drivers taken in by the spectacle – it was often hard to tell. As the rally drew to a close, supporters withdrew to the shady recesses of the parkette, settling in for a group discussion to expound on the virtues of progressive Philippine activism. Several curious individuals were initiated into the proceedings.
All who were present eagerly awaited the People’s SONA, a massive grassroots protest in the Philippines timed to coincide with President Aquino’s own address. Their fervent hope was that Filipinos living in Canada would lend their voices to the growing peoples’ opposition to the Aquino administration, both in the Philippines and abroad.
Jonathan Canchela of Migrante Partylist Canada put it succinctly.
“Many of our countrymen and women experience severe hardship, many don’t have jobs, and the cost of living is too high – this is the reality.”
Written by Dylan Hamada
Photos courtesy of Marco and Lyla Luciano