Death empowers Filipinos in Canada

By PERLA ARAGON-CHOUDHURY
The Philippine Reporter/Canada
May 24 this year marks the fourth anniversary of the death in Toronto of a Filipino-Canadian, Jeffrey Reodica, then a 17-year-old honor student at Scarborough’s Jean Vanier Catholic School. At close range he was shot in the back by a Toronto policeman who was in plainclothes and who would later claim self-defense because Jeffrey “had a knife” with him.

What really happened in that killing, said to have racist overtones?

And why did it galvanize Filipino immigrants — seen as laidback passive, peaceful and fun-loving – to organize for social justice?

We have an answer, thanks to a paper by Mila Astorga-Garcia entitled “The Road to Empowerment in Toronto’s Filipino Community: Moving from Crisis to Community Capacity-Building” (Working Paper No. 54 of the Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement-Toronto; April 2007).

Astorga-Garcia writes in the 48-page paper, “Some eyewitnesses, including a youth a few feet away from Jeffrey at that time … stated that he had had no knife, and was defenseless when he was shot thrice in the back.

“What also enraged the family and members of the community was the way Jeffrey had been portrayed in some mainstream media accounts as a violent, knife-wielding youth, who was ready and determined to attack and kill, including a police officer. This was greatly resented by many, some of whom regarded it as a ploy to justify the shooting by the police. For many in Toronto’s Filipino community, such mainstream media reports served merely to propagate the police version of the incident ”

Astorga-Garcia then describes how a crisis in Toronto’s Filipino community stemming from the shooting and death evolved to a social justice movement that was built though a community’s capacity-building efforts.

She also reports how the family and the community coped by taking action to redress what they saw as a racist and oppressive act by the strong against the weak. They organized the first permanent coalition on of Filipino-Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area – the Community Alliance for Social Justice (CASJ) – and mobilized resources to fight for justice and for broader issues.

Filipinos limited to caregiving jobs
In particular, these greater concerns are the investigation of the exploitation and abuse of live-in caregivers (mostly Filipinos); the limited access of foreign-trained professionals like Filipinos to professions and trades; and reforms in policing and community safety such as independent bodies and processes in the investigations and adjudication of civilian complaints against the police.

As of 2007 the CASJ represented 27 organizations and hundreds of individuals members, and is still growing. It has become sought after for advice by individual Filipinos, and for partnership by other people of color.

Massace rally in May 2005 that started at Nathan Phillips Square, went to the Toronto Police Headquarters and to the Coroner’s office, demanding justice for Jeffrey Reodica.

Aside from the process of mobilization, the Filipino-Canadian community also became empowered by means of culturally sensitive crisis interventions that replaced traditional mental health counseling kindly offered by the city government but which was seen by Filipino culture as an admission that something is wrong and requires fixing.

Astorga-Garcia organizes her paper logically – introduction, . sections on the crisis, its impact and the responses to it; lessons learned, epilogue; conclusions and policy implications. She presents her points in such a way that one becomes angry at racial profiling but remains hopeful about principled protest.

One is also impressed by the author’s thorough documentation – the paper has nine lengthy appendices – as she seamlessly quotes from a number of sources – press conferences, community meetings, a consultation conference, focus groups, interviews, news reports, position papers, government submissions, legal briefs, and news coverage, as well as notes on vigils, pickets, rallies, and other related community events

As a result, she portrays the often simultaneous and overlapping events from the time of the killing through the Justice for Jeffrey Campaign to the establishment of CASJ and through the Coroner’s Inquest requested by the family and reported out in late 2006. It is unfortunate, however, that there are no pictures of these activities. Perhaps this can be remedied in the future.

Towards the end of her paper, Astorga-Garcia muses, “It would be interesting … to look at how other communities respond to a crisis, so as to see the commonalities and differences one may find. Within the Filipino community, it would be valuable to continue tracking and monitoring the developments of the CASJ and the emerging movement for social justice, in order to determine its impact not only on the community but also on the broader Toronto community and Canadian society in general.”

With her ability to present the big picture, Astorga-Garcia makes one look forward to her next monograph on the blossoming of the movement triggered by the Reodica tragedy. And with her attention to the drama inherent in a conflict, especially one with racial undertones, she captures the telling detail which grips the heart.

And so through the writing one flinches at the way Jeffrey Reodica took his nephew to football practice or dropped him to daycare center; the way the sympathizers declined police protection at the funeral but welcomed them at the first-death-anniversary rally; the way the Filipino-Canadian youth reached out to their counterparts of people of color as well as to white Canadians; and the way a Filipino expert on racism was disallowed to present some portions of her testimony at the inquest.

These and many more were the reasons why the movement for social justice had to emerge, Astorga-Garcia tells her readers far and near.

About the Author
Perla Aragon-Choudhury is a freelance writer in the Philippines who has chosen to focus on women, health and development issues, including those on the social costs of migration and trafficking in persons. Her articles have been published in various magazines and newspapers in the Philippines.

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