Thursday, February 7, 2013

A community struggles for civility

The Filipino community in Toronto is being torn apart by a nasty spat between a long-standing and established community newspaper, on one hand, and a group of so-called concerned members of the community, on the other. It is sharply dividing the community and the growing rift does not reflect well on the Filipino’s unwarlike image.
It all begun when Ms. Rosemer Enverga was grilled by Ms. Tess Cusipag, editor of Balita during an open forum on why there were no audited financial statements of Ms. Enverga’s running of beauty pageants when she was still an officer with the Philippine Independence Day Celebration (PIDC). Ms. Cusipag, who also runs a similar beauty pageant called Miss Manila but not as big as the ones ran by Ms. Enverga, has claimed that her pageant earns money every year it’s held. Ms. Enverga is the wife of recently appointed Filipino senator in Canada’s Parliament, Mr. Tobias “Jun” Enverga, who was at one-time the president of PIDC.
Filipino-Canadian Senator Tobias "Jun" Enverga and his wife, Rosemer, meet
with Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim when they visited the Philippines. Click link to view "Senator Enverga's
Message to the Filipino community."
But the squabble could really have started even much earlier when Mr. Enverga, not yet a senator at that time, his wife and their group organized the Philippine Canadian Charitable Foundation (PCCF) that rivalled and duplicated the activities of PIDC. Whereas before, PIDC was the umbrella Filipino organization in Toronto responsible for holding all festivals related to the commemoration of Philippine Independence Day, PCCF has replicated the same activities and been fighting for the same advertisers and sponsors that supported PIDC.
Here are some relevant questions to ponder, though. Would Mr. Enverga encourage the formation of PCCF if he had foreseen his appointment to the Senate by Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper? Or, have these so-called community leaders realized early on that their fascination with senseless beauty pageants would somehow become the spark-plug of this present crisis in the community? So, should blame be assigned on the Filipino’s obsession with the trivial?
However petty the nature of this bickering, the parties involved have raised the conflict to a point that is now breaking up the community. Balita, the community newspaper formerly edited by Filipino journalist Ruben Cusipag, husband of the present editor, maintains that the genuine issue in the ongoing schism in the community is the question of transparency and accountability which the Envergas’ failed to adequately respond to. Romeo Marquez, Balita’s associate editor, further alleges that the rest of the disagreement between the two groups such as the petition started by Mr. Oswald Magno is only a smokescreen to divert the attention from the Envergas’ fixation with power.
For its part, the other group argues that Balita has abused its newspaper’s stature by harassing and ridiculing certain personalities in the community, not just the Envergas but also Mr. Magno, Miss Lilac Cana, and now, Ms. Livvy Camacho. The group has asked the Philippine Press Club of Ontario (PPCO) to intervene by way of sanctioning Balita’s behaviour as a contravention of its Code of Ethics. The choice of the PPCO as an arbiter is rather unfortunate since it was never intended to make determinations contrary to the exercise of free press, besides the fact that it is a mere social club.
Short of litigating in court the defamatory damages that both sides have unknowingly or apparently hurled at each other, one way to resolve the conflict is to bring both groups together in a community town hall meeting where they can discuss their differences in a friendly and civil manner. But obviously this appears not a viable option anymore, because so much hurt and pain have already be been cast by both sides. Or perhaps, egos have been so bruised that the concerned parties have obliterated from their cultural background the natural inclination of Filipinos to sit down and settle family disagreements. Maybe, too much obsession with the adversarial process has shaken our Filipino cultural trait of promoting amity and harmony among ourselves.
One thing I personally know is this. In my more than 25 years in Toronto, long before Romeo Marquez descended upon the city to peddle his journalistic skills, Balita under Ruben Cusipag has never been at the centre of a community controversy, much less as one of the parties involved. Ruben understood what investigative journalism is. That it is not enough to expose the bad apples in the community, but a newspaper has the obligation to present news stories to help shape perceptions of the future of our community. So to Ruben, it is equally just as important to write stories that uncover the roots of injustice and unfairness in our society as a whole.
Former Balita Editor Ruben Cusipag and his wife, Tess, who now runs and edits
the iconic Filipino community newspaper in Toronto. Click link to view "The
Rouge, the Bad & the Wiggly in the Filipino Community" by Romeo Marquez,
If Balita today were still in the able hands of Ruben Cusipag, this ongoing row will never have escalated into a senseless shouting match that uses so much inflammatory and hateful language. Ruben had given up the day-to-day running of Balita to his wife Tess after a serious car accident almost took his life. We became close friends after he covered many of my court hearings that involved Filipino children who were taken away from the custody of their parents. As I knew him then and now, he would have continued to expose shenanigans in the community or issues that were inimical to the best interests of the Filipino community, but in a fashion that would never sow discord or break up our people. He knew when to be doggedly critical and pursue an exposé to its rightful conclusion, but at the same time to be keenly aware when to mediate disputes before they spread like wildfire.
Early in my law practice, Tess Cusipag had invited me to sit as a judge in her Miss Manila beauty pageant. When you’re a lawyer or a doctor, you get invited to these fancy occasions. Normally, I would not accept any such invitation but as a courtesy to her husband Ruben I agreed. Ruben told me it was all right as the contestants would not be allowed to parade themselves in swim suits and even told Tess he would never support beauty pageants because that would objectify the contestants. In fairness to Tess, she kept her promise to Ruben and her Miss Manila beauty pageant has been a successful activity every year although I still can’t find its relevance to our cultural empowerment.
This current community spat started with Tess Cusipag’s zealousness to compel Ms. Enverga to be accountable and transparent with her own beauty pageants, consistent with Balita’s objective to report any irregular activity in the community so the people may know. It is far-fetched to suggest that Tess and Balita wanted to reverse the appointment of Mr. Jun Enverga to the Senate. Mr. Enverga was not a senator yet at that time and no one knew—including himself—which he admitted in a press interview, that he would be appointed.
But the arrival of Romeo Marquez, Tess Balita’s Associate Editor and a former San Diego journalist, has added fuel in the already-raging controversy, particularly with the kind of incendiary language he employs in his articles. It is the same modus operandi that Marquez followed in his newspapering stint in the US that he is now replicating here in Toronto. The trail of controversies he has left behind—his quarrels with various Filipinos, community leaders or otherwise, and videos on YouTube—speaks for the kind of journalism that Balita is currently espousing.
In its latest issue, Balita published an article written by Carlos Padilla, a board member of the Kalayaan Cultural Community Center (KCCC) in Mississauga, who claimed he has asked Mr. Enverga way back in 2000 to report on fundraising events he held at KCCC. According to the article, to date, Mr. Enverga has not complied with Mr. Padilla’s request but he made a pledge he would clear up everything eventually. During a chance meeting with Mr. Enverga last April 2012, and as if he could already read the ominous handwriting on the wall, Mr. Padilla warned Mr. Enverga that his continuing failure to honour his pledge could spell trouble for him in the future.
Maybe the office of Prime Minister Harper did not fully vet Mr. Enverga’s record as a leader in the Filipino community. Perhaps, Mr. Enverga’s high profile in the community was not enough to qualify him as senator, save for his unabashed support of the Conservative Party. There are many skeletons just coming out of the closet. Mr. Enverga needs to address them if he must win and earn the respect and support of the Filipino community which he’s been proud to tell everyone is his natural constituency.
As many a statesman is apt to do, maybe Mr. Enverga could bring the folks in our community together again. There is no better and more opportune time for him than now to show his gravitas in helping heal the wounds inflicted by this raging unfortunate squabble in the community. Just because he wasn’t elected doesn’t mean he could simply watch idly and ignore his community’s disintegration right before his eyes.
As to the controversy in the community, both Balita and the group allegedly led by Oswald Magno should take a break and let cooler heads prevail. As a newspaper, Balita should understand that it is the freedom of the press that makes it a powerful and significant pillar in the community. It should not take this freedom and power lightly— that it can outrightly censure, silence or even bully its critics anytime it’s not happy with complaints from groups in the community about their news reporting.
By the same token, disgruntled or unhappy groups in the community, just because they also have the right to free speech, cannot dictate how newspapers should write their stories. It is the free market of ideas that makes our society vibrant, but how these ideas can be expressed should not be subject to the whims and caprices of overzealous newspapers or the short fuses of some groups unwilling to take criticism if their favourite idol in the nation’s Senate is subjected to the probing eye of the community.
As Goethe once said, “there is a courtesy of the heart,” and out of it arises the purest courtesy in outward behaviour. While conflict is natural to the human condition, it behooves us to bear in mind the pleas for civility as a means of at least managing it.


  1. Very well-opined, Mr. Rivera; fair views on all sides in this situation at hand in the Filipino-Canadian community in Toronto.

  2. We Filipinos have not gotten over our culture of petty politics in the Philippines. This is the reason we have a lot of Filipino organizations abroad even up to barangay level. Reason: Money and power (or prestige).