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Cordillera Day commemorates Indigenous Peoples’ Struggle in the Philippines

TORONTO – Cordillera Day, an annual commemoration of the Indigenous peoples’ struggle in the Cordillera region in the northern Philippines, was celebrated in Toronto. Amidst skits, traditional dances and food, speakers discussed solidarity for Indigenous peoples’ defense of their lands and their right to self-determination in the Philippines and in Canada.

TORONTO – Cordillera Day, an annual commemoration of the Indigenous peoples’ struggle in the Cordillera region in the northern Philippines, was celebrated in Toronto. Amidst skits, traditional dances and food, speakers discussed solidarity for Indigenous peoples’ defense of their lands and their right to self-determination in the Philippines and in Canada. 

Binnadang-Migrante hosted the Cordillera Day event on April 26 at the Cummer Avenue United Church, 53 Cummer Avenue. Binnadang-Migrante, an organization of Indigenous migrants from the Cordillera region, advocates for the human rights of migrants and for Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination in the Cordillera and the Filipino peoples’ right to freedom and democracy.

“A theme of this year’s celebration serves our right to self-determination of Indigenous peoples and solidarity among Filipino miners,” said Dr. Chandu Claver, Bayan Canada chairperson in a video message.

Human rights violations have been perpetrated against Indigenous peoples by the Philippine government and multi-national corporations. The Cordillero region is rich in gold, copper, and manganese.

In March 2014, three family members, Licuben, Fermin, and Eddie Ligiw, Indigenous activists, and William Bugatti, a human rights worker and a Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) member, were murdered in what are termed “extra-judicial killings.”

“The Ligiw father and sons and Bugatti are the contemporary personification of the militant struggle of Cordillera peoples against the massive exportation of our natural resources – not for the sake of opposing but for the sake of future generations and for the sake of what Indigenous people want – self-determination,” said Father Rex Reyes, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, in a video message.
Reyes’s message exemplified how Indigenous people are not against development per se but are against development imposed on them and not consistent with an Indigenous way of life.

“It is clear that the Philippine state, no matter who is in power, is employing all things to grab the richest of the Cordillera ancestral land without consideration of Indigenous peoples’ rights,” said Dr. Claver.

The Philippine government and multi-national companies exploit the vast wealth of natural resources. The Mining Act of 1995 makes the Cordillera region available to transnational corporations as it permits 100 percent foreign ownership; total control of the mineral-rich lands including full water and timber rights, and the right to evict communities from approved areas.

Lack of jobs, economic and social opportunities push the Indigenous people to leave their homeland in the Philippines.

“Development displaces people that lead to their migration. That’s why you have 200,000 Filipinos in Toronto who continue to be part of their beloved homeland by sending remittances to sponsor family members to be reunited in Canada,” said Perry Sorio, Migrante Canada.

“Today, we should recognize the martyrdom of the Ligiw family and William Bugatti as our solidarity should recognize the struggle of the Cordillera people against imperialism and the cry for justice. That is why we demand justice for the Filipino people and the Cordillera people. This is the commitment that we make today. We should call for an end to political impunity, justice for all victims of extra-judicial killings, especially the Ligiw family and William Bugatti,” said Sorio.

“I’m standing here today in solidarity with the migrant workers,” said Kelly MacNaughton-Espinoza, Mohawk and a co-owner of the Two Row Times newspaper.

She recounted how she became aware of the migrant workers’ plight in Canada when she sold groceries to those living near the Six Nations reserve.

“I know thousands of migrant workers. I saw the conditions under which they lived. The migrant workers were living in trailers without heat. They were living in houses: 30 to a house, an old wood-framed house that you had to drive a mile back into the field to get to,” said MacNaughton-Espinoza. “Twelve people sleeping in a bedroom; three bathrooms for 30 people. The conditions are deplorable.”

She went on to say how she approached the Mexican Consulate and Immigration and Citizenship Canada to no avail.

The Cordillera Day commemoration is meant to solidify relationships and create an awareness in Canada about the Indigenous peoples’ crisis in the Philippines.

“There is an ever-widening, ever-growing recognition of the strong influence of imperialism and foreign corporations in the present oppression being experienced by Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera as well as being experienced by the wider population of the Philippines,” said Dr. Claver.

At the forefront of the anti-mining movement in the Philippines is the CPA, a confederation of grassroots organization of Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, formed in 1984. They promote the rights of Indigenous people who face globalization with their resources and territories being taken over by multi-national companies.

Father Reyes noted how Filipinos can solidify actions in Canada with Indigenous people here.

“Be in solidarity with Canadians themselves and try to understand the plight of First Nations in Canada and to understand how such oppression is brought about by almost similar conditions that bring about the oppression of Indigenous peoples here in the Philippines,” said Reyes.

The growing anti-mining movement in the Philippines raises many concerns about the entry of large-scale mining into local communities like the poisoning of rivers, devastation of the forest, destruction of their farmland, and the total disregard for Indigenous peoples’ land rights.

Reverend Bob McElhinney, retired minister of the United Church of Canada and a member of the Beaconsfield Initiative (BI), a United Church of Canada sponsored exposure group including the United Church of Christ Philippines and the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, visited the Cordillera region.

McElhinney travelled in the Cordillera in January 2012 to investigate the large-scale mining impact on Indigenous communities and environment. The trip convinced his group to oppose large-scale mining under current political and economic conditions.

At the Cordillera Day event, McElhinney spoke about what he and some of the BI group noted in a stream while standing on a road near the Lepanto Mining Company in Mankayan.

“A stream is flowing beside us from Lepanto. It and the river rocks are rust coloured, full of pollutants,” said McElhinney.

McElhinney attended the Cordillera Elders Assembly meeting in Basao, Kalinga where the assembly agreed to oppose large-scale mining under present conditions. The elders signed a unity pact to oppose the entry of mining companies in defense of their land, livelihood, and resources.

McElhinney noted how Philippine President Benigno Aquino’s “control over 1.135 billion pesos in public funds” leads to pork barrel politics when Aquino is able to dispense these funds “to legislators, agencies, local government, and business beneficiaries.”

“We meet together on this Day in solidarity with friends and partners in the Cordillera. While we are committed to their struggle, we act in Toronto,” said McElhinney. “Young people in school need to learn what I was never taught: that Indigenous peoples’ history includes facing colonizers out to destroy their culture. Indigenous people deserve to know that we have their backs in their quest for self-determination.”

MacNaughton-Espinoza reiterated what McElhinney had to say about the Canadian education system’s portrayal of Indigenous people here.

“A lot of the people that emigrate here are not told the story of our people. They are given a false history. This false history criminalizes my people and makes us out to be uneducated welfare bums,” said MacNaughton-Espinoza.

She went on to speak about the history of the Two Row Wampum, a covenant first made between the Dutch and the Haudenasaunee in 1613. She noted how the wampum “is actually talking about our separate paths in life.”

“On these paths, we are to respect everybody else’s path. We are not to interfere in your path and you are not to interfere in ours,” said MacNaughton-Espinoza.

She ended by inviting the Cordillera Day celebrants to make a trip to the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve to learn more about the present realities of Indigenous people in Canada.

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Millie Knapp

Millie Knapp

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