March 16, 2023 - Members of the Filipino community in B.C. feted career diplomat Maria Andrelita Austria before she left for Ottawa to assume the post of ambassador of the Philippines to Canada.
Austria, who served as Philippine consul general in Vancouver, was honoured in an emotional farewell dinner held at the Grandt Kitchen Filipino Cuisine in Surrey on February 28, 2023.
In response, Austria lauded the community for its resilience.
“I had never met a community that has faced so many real challenges and has risen above those challenges beautifully,” Austria said.
One of these challenges is the incomplete recognition of credentials by Filipino immigrants who trained for and practised their professions outside Canada.
“Yet despite that barrier, all of you have been leading very successful lives and making very, extremely significant and substantial contributions to Canada,” the seasoned diplomat said.
Even in the face of difficulties, Austria noted to community members that “much has been achieved”.
“They are now teaching the Filipino language in one school,” Austria noted by way of example.
The ambassador was referring to a unanimous vote on January 30, 2023 by the Vancouver school board to approve a Filipino culture and language course at Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School.
Austria also noted that there has been “significant progress” in the recognition of credentials of Filipino professionals.
Next, the Philippine ambassador addressed the matter about the absence of a Filipino cultural centre in British Columbia.
“For the first time ever, the provincial government has instructed a member of the legislative assembly to make sure that there will be a place for us Filipinos where we can call our home,” Austria said.
Austria was referring to mandate letters issued by B.C. Premier David Eby to two Members of the Legislative Assembly of B.C., which included a directive regarding a Filipino cultural centre.
The mandate letters were given to Saanich South MLA Lana Popham, who is the Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, and Vancouver-Kensington MLAMable Elmore, also the Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives.
Eby directed Popham and Elmore to “advance emerging museum programs and proposals including the Chinese Canadian museum, a South Asian museum, and a provincial Filipino cultural centre”.
In her remarks, Austria called on the Filipino community to support the development of the centre, an initiative that is being led by the nonprofit Mabuhay House Society.
“I would really, really look forward to the honour and privilege of coming back here to inaugurate or do the groundbreaking for Mabuhay House,” she said.
On March 6, community leaders asked the provincial government through a letter to take the “next step” to build a Filipino cultural centre.
The letter was signed by Rafael “RJ” Aquino, a member of board of directors of the Tulayan Filipino Diaspora Society; Angeles “Jody” Flores, president of the Filco-operative One Housing Society; and Antonio Ortega, president of the Cebuano Society of Canada.
The letter was addressed to Eby, Popham, Elmore, and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, Attorney General Niki Sharma, Minister of Citizens’ Services Lisa Beare, and Minister of Education Rachna Singh.
Aquino, Flores and Ortega indicated that the community wishes to see a Filipino cultural centre with the following components: performing arts and intercultural programming; recreational and sports activities; childcare; seniors services; affordable housing; and spaces to deliver sustainability and foster reconciliation.
“We’re ready for this first-of-its-kind centre to be built in Vancouver, and we’re excited by what we can accomplish by working together,” they wrote to Eby and select members of the provincial Cabinet.
Other individuals and organizations are expected to add their signatures to the letter.
On March 3, 2023, the Embassy of the Philippines in Ottawa announced the arrival of Austria in the capital city.
The embassy related that Austria was welcomed by the heads of diplomatic missions of the ASEAN Committee in Ottawa (ACO).ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Ambassador-designate Austria’s appointment as Philippine Ambassador to Canada follows her four-year term as the Philippine Consul General in Vancouver,” the embassy recalled.
Also, “A public servant since 1986 and a career diplomat since 1992, Ambassador-Designate Austria served as Assistant Secretary for American Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC.”
The February 28 farewell dinner for Austria was organized by the United Filipino Canadian Associations in B.C.At the event, Austria told community members that she may be soon based in Ottawa as ambassador, but her thoughts will always be with the Filipino community in B.C.
“I am only a call or a text away,” Austria said.
[Disclosure: Carlito Pablo is a staff member at the Vancouver-Kensington community office of MLA Mable Elmore.]