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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

TAKING STOCK 2 (PART 3): The Third Decade of my Exile

TAKING STOCK 2 (PART 3): The Third Decade of my Exile

It occurs to me now that the cycle my life followed in the Philippines is quite similar to the one I pursued in exile. In Canada as in the Philippines, I earned a livelihood as a writer and journalist for my first 10 years, taught in Career Colleges for the next 10, and ended up in politics for the last 10 before retiring to a more “civilized” life of reading, writing, travelling, and avoiding the urge to prepare to “kick the bucket.”

When I quit teaching here, Career Colleges started sprouting all over Canada. Every hapless immigrant wanted some kind of training to earn a living. PhDs in physics think it is criminal to work as taxi drivers when this country of some 35 million needed scientists, not to mention first class minds.

Doctors from the Philippines have to go back to school to get themselves certified to work as physicians whatever specialties they have. After a year or two, they immigrate to the United States and work there as physicians. Our loss, their gain south of the border. Nurses and teachers from the Third World countries end up being nannies, caregivers, or even masseuses in sex parlours that masquerade as spas.

Little wonder then that fraudulent schools and diplomas sprang from the woodwork. Now, the government is running after these institutions that somehow bridged the gap for the professionals who immigrated here only to be treated as second class citizens. Oh, they would employ the doctors as operation room nurses, academics as pizza delivery boys, and engineers as Casino croupiers.

Teaching in the International Business Schools (they have since folded up when enrolments dwindled because the Ministry of Education realized that high schools here could teach the same vocational skills to help immigrants get jobs as soon as they win landed immigrant status or citizenship after three years), provided me with insights into how public education could easily take over from these “career colleges” which, after all, charged criminally exorbitant tuition fees only to issue diplomas that are scarcely respected by employers anyway. I met a good number of disillusioned professionals who thought coming to America would get them better professional and economic lives.

Certainly, business entrepreneurs hereabouts still skirt hiring educated employees because they join unions and demand higher pays. “Slave labour” from “seasonal labourers” temporarily employed from Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, and other Latin American countries has become a source of embarrassment.

From my occasional appearances on television promoting these career colleges, I gained some dubious exposure, wide enough to win me a school board election after my academic stint. I wanted to get my hands on education policy.

Filipino expatriates thought I was foolhardy running in Mississauga’s most affluent area – wards made up of the wealthy and established gentry (both the Federal Member of Parliament and Provincial Parliament Member, and two City councillors lived in my riding). I had twenty years of “work experience” and I was ready “to give back to my community.” I also needed a job.

In that first campaign in 1999, what stands out is the closeness I had finally developed with my family (children, in-laws, and even grandchildren) who doggedly fanned out to a vast area (the largest riding in Mississauga, Wards 2 and 8, with a population of practically one third of the 700 thousand that populated this sixth largest city of Canada, Mississauga).

On a weekend, during the campaign, one of my grandchildren, then 3-year old Taylor Lauren Kwan, wanted some candy while helping to distribute those leaflet trumpeting grandpa’s credentials. Grandpa said, “Ask your Mommy. Candies may not be good for your little teeth,” I pleaded.

From out of left field, she screamed: “Vote Jim Dore! Vote Jim Dore!” That’s my school activist, White Anglo Saxon, long-time Irish emigre, opponent’s name!

I gave her the candy. Lesson in political quid pro quo, I muttered. I thought the campaign was going the wrong way. But I won by 33 votes. The next elections, won 86% of the vote, and by my ninth year, I had served as Chairman of the By-laws, Policy, Procedures Committee , Contracts Committee, Faith and Education Committee, and Administrative Committee. I thought I was ready to run for Chairman of the Board; I was denied that honour twice, having run against a long-time British-born chairman and a young veteran trustee from a neighbouring city.

I needed to steer the board to more progressive educational matters. I knew I was one of those outspoken trustees who challenged the wisdom of the Ministry of Education when it took over the board for not balancing the budget. I was a marked man. I lost the elections in 2006.

But I lost valiantly, realizing that I was bucking the Provincial Government’s effort to emasculate the Catholic Education Board, and cutting funding wherever they found it politically expedient. The effort to micro-manage the school boards seemed to have extinguished the fire in my belly. I ran to serve, not play petty politics. (More of these issues later.)

Summing up, nevertheless, I feel proud of having written policy that reemphasized the core of Catholic Education – the development of students according to the teachings of Christ and the Holy Magisterium of the Church. Catholic education need not clash with secular society’s goals.

I protected as best I could the right of my constituents to retain school bus service for their children when cutting these seemed fashionable.

I fought for a more dynamic cooperation among the three pillars of Catholic education: the triumvirate of school-Church-parents. I wrote policy to inculcate in the curriculum the development of Christian Catholic values that strengthened a democratic way of life.

In the schools (some 22 of them that I presided over), we introduced Schools for the Arts, and improved courses that would equip the high school graduates with vocational skills that could get them jobs as soon as they finished their secondary education. This was calculated to help them earn money for their college or university education, if they decided to pursue tertiary education. Scholarships and student loan subsidies were scarce.

There is a small Filipino community in my riding. I hardly heard from them except when a parent would ask me to intervene for a child suspended for some misdemeanour. Or a paisano wanted a job at the school board – maybe as a principal, a teacher, or even a maintenance man (janitor, really). It was no different from when I served as a civil servant in Malacanang, with the Department of Public Information. Filipino politicians are largely still regarded as padrinos, short cuts to advantage, really.

But I am happy to have worked hard for a Filipino Senior citizens organization, the Sampaguita Seniors Association, to get Provincial and Federal funding for their activities – among them physical, educational, social, and cultural activities that kept them participating in the community as exemplars of good citizenship and inspirations for the youth.

My wife’s aunt, Mrs. Ephrena Chaves, an 82-year-old senior citizen who emigrated from Cagayan de Oro City in the Southern Philippines, keeps herself busy organizing the tenants of the retirement home for their regular socials, exercise sessions, karaoke nights, picnics, computer-training programs, excursions, and volunteer activities to teach the youth baking, the arts, and other cultural activities.

The one time another Filipino got in touch was when I got a call from a columnist of one of the Filipino newspapers, urging me to run for Provincial politics. I said I was happy serving in the lowest rung of Canadian politics, where I am closest to those who needed services for the most important legacy of the community – education. It was a little recognition that I valued for what it was worth.

Where I was unsuccessful back in the old country politics, I made it here where the citizens are truly sovereign and demand the best of its civil servants. I have come full circle.

When I lost the 2006 elections for a fourth term, I was awarded the usual severance salary for civil servants. I told my wife that we had enough to bring the entire Casuga clan for a long-needed vacation. I thanked my family for helping me realize a third dream in a strange and cold country. We had a week-long summer break in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, where one of my daughters conceived my ninth grandchild – Louis Martin Lalonde.

I have retired. I am “re-tired”. That’s why I got myself into this “blogging” business. I am still working on something I like and love.

How can you top that?

Oh, en passant, I am taking a week-long pre-Christmas break in St. Lucia, in the Caribbean on December 12, with my wife, Veronica.

In exile, I have built within me and my family, a happy country.

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