VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Maita Santiago was sworn in as councilor of Burnaby in British Columbia (BC) last Nov. 2, 29 years after she failed in a similar electoral attempt in Vancouver.
Santiago, an immigration consultant and a native of Bulacan in the Philippines, is the first of Filipino heritage to take the post of councilor of Burnaby and the Lower Mainland. She is a former secretary general of the progressive Filipino international migrant organization Migrante.
Burnaby, BC’s third biggest city next to Vancouver and Surrey, is the seat of the Metro Vancouver Regional District.
Santiago’s win in the Oct. 15 local BC elections, along with those of four other Filipino Canadians, is a historic feat for the community long seeking greater political representation.
“We had the most successful campaign for the Filipino Canadian community in BC. We made history,” said Mable Elmore, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the Vancouver-Kensington electoral district.
Elmore, the first MLA of Filipino heritage in BC, said the results of the elections had “transformed the political landscape.”
She said the victory of three Filipino Canadians in the municipal council and two others in local school boards is considered the community’s biggest electoral haul in the province at one time.
Aside from Santiago, elected councilors were Gregg Apolonio in Dawson Creek and Edwin Empinado in Kitimat.
Apolonio, who ran as an independent, received the fourth highest number of votes among six winning candidates, outranking two incumbents.
Empinado, who in 2011 became the first Filipino Canadian to be elected municipal councilor in the province, will be serving a fourth term.
Rod Belleza, who has served two terms as a school trustee in Richmond, was also elected for a third term. Lailani Tumaneng, a registered nurse and union organizer who sought public office for the first time, will join the school board of North Vancouver.
Trustees of the District Board of Education are elected during local elections. They set and implement policies, employ school staff, manage budgets, and perform other functions within their school district.
Tumaneng said she had never imagined becoming an elected official but that her experience as a union organizer encouraged her to stand for underrepresented groups and sectors.
The significance of the historic electoral win is profoundly felt by those who were elected and by the community leaders.
“I am very mindful of the context of my getting elected as councilor,” Santiago said. “The political journey of the Filipino Canadian community started long before, and I am grateful to those who came forward because everything that has happened since then contributed to this [moment].”
Erie Maestro, a retired librarian and a founding member of Migrante-BC, said the victory of the Filipino Canadian candidates was also a great achievement of the community.
Elmore said the Oct. 15 elections, which saw a record number of 10 candidates for public office, also drew the biggest number of volunteers and campaign staff from the community in the province.
“There is a realization that candidates can run—and win,” she said.
Even the candidates who did not make it outperformed the incumbents and surpassed expectations.
Hairstylist and former caregiver Lina Vargas, a first-time candidate who ran as an independent, received the biggest number of votes among 11 independent candidates for the crowded city council race in Vancouver.
Despite limited resources as an independent candidate, Vargas mounted a campaign that drew support not just from Filipino Canadians but also from other racialized groups who had translated her campaign materials into their languages.
“I have no experience in elections, but I stepped up so that underrepresented groups, including Filipino Canadians, will have a greater voice,” said the mother of three and a native of Iriga City in Camarines Sur in the Philippines.
Ramon Bandong, also a first-time candidate, garnered 14,315 votes after a four-month campaign.
“We are into something big, and we have to sustain this,” said Bandong, a father of four from Quezon City.
A church leader with a 15-year career in banking, Bandong said he would pursue his passion for public service in the next elections. He said he was drawing inspiration from his participation in the “Edsa People Power” uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, when he was just 15 years old.
It was “the power of one person united with other people,” he said.
Rapid increase of immigrants
The unprecedented electoral win of Filipino Canadians in this westernmost province occurred amid the continued rapid increase of immigrants from the Philippines.
Filipino Canadians account for about 2.6% of the country’s total population, Statistics Canada reported in its 2021 survey. At 957,355, the community is the fourth biggest racialized group, next to South Asians, Chinese, and Black people.
The second largest proportion of Canada’s new immigrants from 2016 to 2021 came from the Philippines, next to India, according to the survey. In BC, the number of Filipino Canadians has reached 174,280—the third biggest racialized group after Chinese and South Asians.
Elmore said that while much work was needed for greater representation after the recent elections, there had also been bigger recognition of the broad base of the Filipino Canadian community.
“We should continue, and more involvement is needed. We can build on this campaign,” she said.