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Imagining political and economic alternatives between Canada and the Philippines

Imagining political and economic alternatives between Canada and the Philippines

Philip Francis Kelly
Philip Kelly

In the Filipino language, ate (pronounced “ah-tay”) means big sister. It is also the acronym for a research initiative based at York known as ‘ATE’ – the Canada-Philippines Alternative Transnational Economies project.

ATE was funded between 2015 and 2022 by a SSHRC Insight Grant, with Philip Kelly as the principal investigator, and co-investigators from Canada (Leonora Angeles, UBC and Lynne Milgram, OCAD University) and the Philippines (Maruja Asis, Scalabrini Migration Center; and Geoffrey Ducanes and Andre Ortega, both initially at the University of the Philippines).

The project sought to trace the transnational connections that are forged between Canada and the Philippines by Filipino immigrant communities. The ‘alternatives’ the researchers were seeking were rooted in the notion of a solidarity or community economy – in other words, economic practices that foreground collective well-being over personal gain or profit.  The research team was not, therefore, interested in corporate transnational ties between the two countries, nor even in the person-to-person remittances that Filipinos in Canada send to their families back home. Instead, they wanted to understand those practices that were collective in nature and sought to advance welfare and development outside of the capitalist, for-profit and privatized mainstream. Much of the inspiration for this approach came from the feminist geographical work of J. K. Gibson-Graham on post-capitalist alternatives.

The project’s researchers found such alternative transnational economic practices in several ways. Clarence Magpantay’s MA (Geography) thesis examined the work of a Catholic NGO (ANCOP) that seeks donations and volunteers in Canada to build villages in the Philippines that provide housing to selected poor families. Clarence’s critical analysis asked how such diaspora-supported development projects enforce particular forms of conduct and behaviour among beneficiaries. In a similar vein, Philip Kelly and Andre Ortega examined the work of Gawad Kalinga – another home-building NGO raising funds in the diaspora – to ask what forms of moral subjectivity are created and disciplined in this model of development. Meanwhile, Lynne Milgram’s work traced the alternative production practices and trade networks that brought specialty coffee from the Philippines to Canada.

A.T.E project team members

While the initial focus of the ATE project was on alternative forms of collective economic support that flow from the diaspora to the homeland, changing circumstances in the Philippines led to a shift in the project’s focus. In 2016 Rodrigo Duterte was elected as President of the Philippines and a bloody “war on drugs” ensued with tens of thousands murdered in extra-judicial killings. Political opponents, radicals and journalists were also targeted in a concerted narrowing of democratic space in the country. In this context, ATE researchers started to think more about the ways in which diaspora communities might conceive and nurture alternative political imaginaries for the homeland. In one project, led by Philip Kelly, the team examined the initial support for Duterte among the diaspora and the emergence of critical voices among Filipinos in Canada. In another project, Leonora Angeles led a group of students studying the work of the progressive migrant rights organization Migrante International, which is headquartered in the Philippines but has chapters across Canada. Meanwhile, a group of international graduate students from the Philippines sought to use their position at York to mobilize critical public scholarship in support of grassroots initiatives in the Philippines. Known as the Alitaptap Collective, it was led by Kenneth Cardenas (PhD, Geography), Christopher Chanco (MA, Geography) and Chaya Go (PhD, Geography) and included video podcasts and journalistic pieces highlighting resistance to the creeping brand of authoritarianism that was becoming evident in the Philippines.

Another twist in the ATE project came with the realization that alternative economic practices and political imaginaries flow in both directions. Too often, the diaspora is treated as if it is the exclusive font of hope, care and financial support to help the homeland. In reality, these processes also flow from the Philippines outwards.

A.T.E project team meeting in 2017

Conely de Leon’s PhD research at York examined the ways in which care chains between Canada and the Philippines are multi-directional. In other words, transnational care and emotional labour flow from kin in the Philippines to diasporic relatives in Canada and not just the other way around. These forms of support are truly care networks that utilize various forms of communication and encompass friends and family dispersed around the globe. In a rather different case, Philip Kelly and Melissa Gibson have explored the ways in which Filipino-Canadian youth engaging in employment, education or volunteerism in the Philippines find that the ‘homeland’ creates a source of identity and empowerment. In this way, a relationship to ancestral roots can forge a more confident and assertive definition of what it means to be Filipino-Canadian and thus open new possibilities that break open Canadian hierarchies of race and class.

In some cases, inspiration also comes from the distinctive and exemplary practices of Filipino grassroots organizations, which point to new (and radical) economic and political thinking. Hazel Dizon’s MA (Geography) research highlighted the success of a 2017 movement in the Philippines that took over empty government housing in the province of Bulacan, outside Manila. The movement, known as Occupy Bulacan, succeeded in organizing alternative community structures in the occupied villages and eventually secured congressional approval to remain there indefinitely. Chaya Go’s PhD (Geography) research explored the work of another grassroots organization, the Citizen’s Disaster Response Center, in offering radical possibilities for re-politicising disaster response and vulnerability. Both Hazel and Chaya’s work highlighted the ways in which the Philippines holds exemplars for new ways of thinking and organizing that can inspire movements globally.

Overall, the ATE project has attempted to document, analyse and critically assess the various ways in which alternative economic and political imaginaries are circulated and practiced in transnational migrant spaces between the Philippines and Canada. Plans are underway to collect and publish the project’s findings in an edited volume.

Philip Kelly is a professor of Geography at EUC and the Faculty’s Associate Dean for Research, Graduate and Global Affairs. He was previously chair of York’s Department of Geography and Director of the York Centre for Asian Research. His latest research project, in collaboration with Peter Vandergeest, examines migrant labour in global fishing fleets.