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An Evening of Rejoicing - Filipinos Remember the Past, Celebrate the Present

It was the 20th of June, 2019, and it was the Filipino evening. Members of the Filipino Community in Halifax gathered at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to celebrate their Heritage Month, their culture, their music and dance, and their identity. It was a night of exuberance, a night of pomp and splendor. Their colorful and traditional dress ‘baro at saya’, glittering in the light proclaimed that it was a special night, a night of jubilation.

I have a few Filipino immigrant friends, but I never had the opportunity to attend any of their formal or cultural events before. So being there with the community and absorbing the nuances of their activities was a new and thrilling experience for me.

As part of the celebrations, the debut of the film Becoming Labrador at its North American premier screening was held at the Museum that night. A film by Rohan Fernando, Tamara Segura and Justin Simms, Becoming Labrador told the story of a growing community of Filipino workers who travelled halfway around the world to the stark Labrador interior for jobs, new opportunities and a better life. The film followed a few of these men and women in their relentless efforts to establish themselves in the strange new land.

Becoming Labrador was presented in partnership with the National Film Board of Canada, the Filipino Association of Nova Scotia (FANS), the Filipino Canadian Heritage Society of Nova Scotia (FCHSNS) and the Philippine Consulate General Halifax. This screening was part of the Museum’s Diversity Spotlight Film Series.

The program included cultural performances and a story-sharing session. The dances and the choral performances were both entertaining and thought-provoking. The performance of the dancers while holding lit candles in their hands, and the graceful movements won my heart. I wished I could join in.

Ms. Ursula Handleigh’s ‘In the space between memory and loss’, a film installation, was an added attraction to the evening. Ms. Handleigh is a first-generation Canadian whose mother is from the Philippines. The exhibit addressed the competing dualities of mourning and grief, whereby grief is the internal experience of loss, and mourning is the public performance of grief. A conversation with Ms. Handleigh made me realize how simple and yet how complex the theme of the exhibit was. The images on the screens, accompanied only by the sound of the running films, evoked in me a new realization of some human emotions, like the sorrow buried deep in my soul for my beloved departed. Her art added an extra dimension to the evening and it was appreciated by many of the guests.

All through the evening there was one question floating around in my head. Why do people celebrate their own culture even while they are trying to integrate themselves into a new life in a new country? Is it because they want to remember life in their native land and cherish it still? The food, the attire, and the customs and traditions followed inside and outside our homes mean so much to us and we feel that these should be preserved for posterity. I remember how two of the Filipino ladies, during a working committee meeting, enthusiastically argued between themselves and after messaging to their friends for their approval, finally picked out two Filipino sweets to add to the menu for the reception that evening. It was so very personal to them. I found it rather amusing. I would probably have done the same with Jelebis and kheer if I were to plan the menu for an Indian reception.

Watching Becoming Labrador with the Filipino community in the theatre was a deeply emotional experience for me. As an immigrant myself, I could identify with the heartaches of the men and women who had to leave their home land to find work in Canada, and with their struggle to fit in with the people of the new land. They faced discrimination, ill treatment, and even ridicule. But they fought it all, and were able to overcome all obstacles, both natural and man-made, and succeed in finding happiness while the struggles continued. Everyone in the audience could identify with the characters in the film, their experience, their loneliness, and the challenges they encountered.

Family is important to all of us. The biggest problem the characters in the movie faced was being away from their families, a situation I myself was in, by being away from my only child for many years. In some ways Becoming Labrador is every immigrant’s story, and it is my own story as much as it is theirs.

During the film, I saw some of the ladies wiping their eyes, and I started to blink repeatedly in an effort to stop my own tears from falling. But the tears fell anyway. The audience and I were deeply involved in the story unfolding on the screen. When they smiled, I smiled, when they wept, I wept. It was a totally empathetic reaction, a total sharing.

During the reception, the Rudolph P. Bratty Hall reverberated with happiness and laughter. There was a lot of cheering, a lot of greeting and hugging. Watching them relishing their food, including the Filipino sweets, and sharing it with them gave me tremendous satisfaction. Their enthusiasm and euphoria were infectious. My heart was brimming with joy. I was happy for them. What a fitting finale for a delightful evening!