Written by Ysabel Espina
When people from the Philippines began arriving in Toronto in the 1960s, a number of them gravitated towards the St. James Town area. They chose to settle in this particular neighbourhood because Filipinos who were involved in the medical field were able to find employment in nearby hospitals, including Wellesley Hospital. The neighbourhood was also the site of numerous high-rise apartment buildings, newly built at that time, which offered affordable rents. Furthermore, excellent access to transit, including Sherbourne buses and the nearby Sherbourne Subway Station, connected this original settlement of Filipinos in St. James Town to the rest of Toronto.
Within a short period of time, St. James Town came to serve as an important space for the growing Filipino community to meet and interact with each other. Exchanges took place in the grocery store or in passing on the street, and friendships were formed. In turn, apartments were shared, as many of the new Filipinos were single women who worked as nurses and were struggling with isolation, loneliness, and homesickness. Sharing an apartment with another individual also helped them to save money in order to increase the size of the remittances they could send back to their families, who were still residing in the Philippines. St. James Town provided the social space that was needed for this initial wave of Filipinos to Toronto, a space that helped alleviate some of the challenges that came along with being newcomers to the city.
Another important factor that brought Filipinos to this particular area was the proximity of Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church on Sherbourne Street. A majority of the Filipinos were Catholics who had regularly attended mass in the Philippines. Our Lady of Lourdes became their new faith community, and a place where they could maintain their previous pattern of religious observance. Our Lady of Lourdes would serve as the home of an organization founded in 1969 by Sister Mel Madamba, OMI (Oblates of the Mary Immaculate), called the Filipino Christian Workers (FCW). This group was made up of volunteers who committed their time in order to create a sense of solidarity amongst the growing Filipino Community in the area. They also wanted to help others make the transition to Toronto and adjust to the Canadian way of life.
The Filipino Christian Workers faced a rapidly growing community with a pressing need for settlement services. Struggling to meet that need, the FCW was converted into a not-for-profit, non-sectarian and non-political organization in 1971 called the Silayan Community Centre, with a specific mandate to assist new arrivals in the city. The Centre first occupied rent-free space in Our Lady of Lourdes Church, a convenient location in close proximity to the St. James Town community.
Silayan is a Tagalog word that means “a new dawning” or “a new day”, and this name was well suited to the thousands of Filipino immigrants to Canada who had arrived in search of a better future for their families. The Silayan Community Centre has worked to offer help and assistance to newcomers who lack social networks, and who are not familiar with governmental institutions and social services.
Since not all Filipinos are Catholic, and since the community was fractured by a volatile political climate in the Philippines, it was imperative that this new organization remain religiously and politically neutral. The Silayan Community Centre moved to a larger location on Gerrard Street and in July 1979 was incorporated as the Silayan Filipino Community Centre in order to be able to serve and cater to a growing clientele, and so as not to deter Filipinos who were not Catholic from asking for the centre’s assistance.
The Silayan Filipino Community Centre became a primary institution for the Filipino community during its formative decades in Toronto. It helped newcomers find employment, prepare their income tax, and understand legal issues. It also administered and facilitated the issuance and renewal of passports before the establishment of the Philippine Consulate in the city. Recognizing that there were an increasing number of children and adolescents who were coming to Toronto through their parents’ sponsorship, the centre also offered a crisis intervention service. A social worker was hired to conduct counseling sessions for parents and children alike, in order to help them adjust as they became a complete family unit once more after years of being apart from each other. The Centre also provided a space for day-care, youth activities, and drop-in services for seniors.
Above and beyond these contributions, in the 1990s the Silayan Filipino Community Centre also spearheaded and facilitated the construction of three cooperative housing developments in the Greater Toronto Area: the Living Water Building in Mississauga, Bayanihan Cooperative Homes in Brampton, and Tahanan Cooperative Homes in Toronto. “Bayanihan” is a Tagalog tradition in which people literally help their neighbours move their wooden huts to a new location by carrying the houses upon their shoulders. It can also be a word that means to help and to act like a hero. This is very significant since these buildings make it easier for Filipinos to access to housing for themselves and their children. “Tahanan”, the name of the Toronto Co-op, is a Tagalog word that means home. All three housing developments provide housing for those in the city who are struggling with poverty and are unable to secure proper accommodations.
Equally important, the Silayan Filipino Community Centre, along with other Filipino community centres and organizations, has played a critical role in the organization of cultural events and festivities. In doing so, it has offered many a chance to celebrate their heritage, not only as an expression of their roots, but also as a means to educate the second generation of Filipinos who were born in Toronto.
Silayan Community Center Brochure
Rosalina Bustamante, ‘A Growing Community in Fast Growing City’ Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1984), pg. 168-171.
Robert Cusipeg, Portrait of Filipino Canadians in Ontario: 1960-1990, (Kalayan Media, 1993).
Art Valladolid, ‘Even Among Filipinos; Poverty in Toronto is not an Urban Legend’, Retrieved from: http://www.philippinereporter.com/2007/04/16/even-among-filipinos-poverty-in-toronto-is-not-an-urban-legend/
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.