Filipina trailblazer in Manitoba, Canada

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2020 - 12:00am

Florfina de Guzman was 10 years old when her father died of a massive heart attack at age 48. He was a minister of a Christian church in Lucena, Quezon. With his passing away, the family no longer had his breadwinner’s small though steady income. To support  her six children – ranging in age from two years old to 11 – Florfina’s mother became a labandera and sold street food, but since her earnings were not enough, she was forced to send her younger offspring to orphanages to ensure that they would have something to eat.

Though feeling bereft, Florfina, the oldest daughter, lived by a moral compass learned from her father, i.e. doing only good things, excelling in school, obtaining a college degree and in 1979, enrolling for a master’s degree in communications research at the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Mass Communications.When she got a job, she was able to get her siblings back to the family fold. She said, “A leader needs to be guided by a strong, inner moral compass to navigate through the crushing waves, blows and challenges that life engulf us.”

Another blow  later was a near fatal  illness – having a meningioma the size of a clenched fist in the pre-frontal cortex behind her nose and right eye, which, thank God,  was removed successfully by surgery.  Again, her moral compass made her survive.

Her navigation through life brought her to the National Housing Authority where she met who would become her husband, Orlando “Orli” Marcelino, a fine arts graduate also of UP. Their political views were at  variance; at the height of the First Quarter Storm,  he was an activist mouthing Mao Zedong’s thought of religion being “the opium of the masses,” while she “strongly believed in Jesus Christ’s message of love, forgiveness and service for the oppressed.” But they had  the same mission –  “serving the people.” 

The couple had two children when they emigrated to Canada in 1982. They settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba which had “a strong community spirit, and a good place to work and raise a family.” They could have some support from the 80,000 Filipino immigrants, including Orli’s older brother who had lived in Manitoba for some time. 

Life was not easy at first. “We had day jobs to put food on the table, we also did volunteer time working for our communities.” Orli organized workers’ groups and later became honorary consul general for the Philippine government in Manitoba while she worked for the local church and the Global Ministries Board. “Over the years we influenced each other’s work. Orli became and still is an elder in our church and volunteers his time there.”

Flor worked with a secure, unionized job as office assistant at Red River College for 17 years. Then, she and Orli  went into publishing. For 11 years, she edited The Philippine Times, “a progressive newspaper that would let people know about human rights abuses and corruption going on in the Philippines.” 

Flor, unexpectedly, became “the political one” – at first reluctantly, agreeing to lead the progressive New Democratic Party.  In  2007 she became the first woman of color ever elected as a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. She was reelected twice as a member for the Logan constituency. From 2009 to 2016 she served as Minister for Culture, Heritage and Tourism with the Manitoba Legislature. She also served as Interim Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition from May 2016 to September 2017.

As legislator, her concerns went beyond Winnipeg – in areas related to immigration and citizenship, employment and housing. Many, she says, were assisted in navigating various government offices to obtain services in education, health, family services, and seniors.

As a minister of the Crown in charge of culture, heritage and tourism, she made sure cultural institutions obtained the needed support from government to carry out their organizational mandate. As minister for multiculturalism and literacy, she made sure steady and even additional funding was given to all adult education centers (around 40 of them). 

“In the same manner, I worked hard to connect and meet with the leadership of each and every multicultural organization, assisted and encouraged them to apply for provincial assistance for their projects and I made sure I followed it up to obtain the grant.”

As a cabinet member, she actively supported capital projects such as a high-rise affordable housing and  enhancements to existing day care centers, and additional funding for the operation of homes for adults.

During the first year of her election, and still a backbencher, she learned that for 15 years, a senior’s community organization had been clamoring for  a  building as the members could  no longer maintain their homes’ upkeep by mainly lawn mowing in the summer and snow shoveling at winter time. Minister Marcelino was able to  obtain  major funding from the government for a two-story housing with 36 affordable quality units for these senior citizens. 

Two other bigger housing projects in her constituency were built, including a state-of-the-art new women’s hospital. These, she says, “are concrete proofs of what dogged persistence and sustained lobbying and coordinating work with fellow ministers and the Treasury board can do paid so well.”  

Her commitment and quest for excellence  rubbed off on her daughter Malaya, who was elected member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly  despite her lack of political experience and belonging to a party that had been the winning governing party. 

The four other Marcelino  children are Diwa, who recently finished the power engineering program and still finishing all the government licensing exams while working as a truck driver for a big courier company; Maya, a child development worker; Awit, who is graduating with a master of divinity degree  at the University of Toronto and working toward her ordination, and Lualhati, a research and policy analyst.

For her outstanding accomplishments, Flor  has received a series of awards. One was the golden Balanga Lifetime achievement Award from the iKubo Media in Toronto, Ontario. She was recognized in a ceremony at the Manitoba Legislature as one of the 18 female Trailblazers of the province of Manitoba’s first 100 years (from 1916 to 2016). The award honored women who were or are in positions traditional held by men or worked “to forge new pathways for women.” The recognition also notes that since women were granted the right to vote in Manitoba on Jan. 28, 1918, only 51 women have been elected to the Legislature as MLAs and only a small number have served as officers of the assembly. 

Another award was the Canadian Immigrant magazine RBC which honored her as one of the Top 25 Canadian immigrants of 2017. She was  also one of three recipients  of a Trailblazers Award given by the Manitoba Pinays Inc.

In 2013, she received the National Ethnic Press and Media Council (NEPMCC) Award for Distinguished  Services in the Humanities in ceremonies officiated by the Hon David C. Onley, Lt. Governor of the Province of Ontario, and Thomas Saras, NEPMCC president and CEO.

She is also an outstanding member of the Honor Society of the Lambda Sigma of the UP.

“Living outside the Philippines allowed me to see how good governance, strict environmental protection, equal and available opportunities to improve one’s life can make for a higher quality of life.  A very stark contrast is in the field of politics. I was able to run for public office and won with hardly any personal funds.”

She admits she experienced as a woman of color “early on and even in the recent past. Thankfully there are policies in place to address them. Overall I believe  Canada has a better political climate and wider acceptance and accommodation for cultural differences than the United States.”

Her country beckons to her. Now, she admits, “with withdrawal to travel, I am in the Philippines every year to visit family and friends while I have the energy for long travels.” She is 69. This year, she says she is lucky to meet former classmates at the Bagong Pag-asa Elementary School and San Francisco High School, all in Manila, and the UP, and church dignitaries, including Pastor  Petz Guerrero, who introduced us. Always in her travels she drops by the Manuel S. Enverga University Foundation headquarters, which judged her as one of five recipients of the 2013 Enverga Forever Global Award.

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