First Filipino Canadians
The Filipino in Me - Insights into Living Heritage
Entry by Joseph Lopez. Vancouver, British Columbia
Joseph Lopez has been a public voice as a radio talk show host/journalist for The Filipino Edition on CKYE RED FM 93.1 and FM 89.1 in Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. RED stands for Reaching Ethnic Diversity and that is what the show is all about. Every Sunday morning, Joseph leads a conversation on news developments providing information which can lead to a more informed citizen. The show can be heard live across Greater Vancouver BC and live-streamed online across Canada and the world.
A graduate of Syracuse University, New York, Joseph since 2010, has been a reporter for several community media: print, and online. Joseph has covered issues and events locally and all over the world. Reportage has included international development/aid programs, health, politics, business, religion, charitable trusts, personalities, arts/film, sports, culture and social concerns.
Joseph Lopez serendipitously discovered a book reference to a Filipino in Bowen Island, BC, Canada in the 1800s while on a weekend hiking trip in May 2011. This led to an on and off decade long search for who on record was the First Filipino Immigrant in Canada.
First Filipino Canadians: The Search Begins
If you look at history books and online sources as recent as 2019, all of them will say that the first Filipino immigrants in Canada arrived in the 1930s, mostly settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba. So I left it at that.
It was May 2011, when I decided to visit Bowen Island for a long weekend after hearing about the fun of climbing Mount Gardner. Bowen Island is about a 20-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, a distance of three nautical miles.
From the ferry dock, I saw the Bowen Island Public Library, a red Tudor style building. Inside, I asked if there was historical information about the island, and the librarian showed me the book titled Bowen Island 1872-1972 by Irene Howard. I wanted to know the history of the place I was about to explore.
Page 36 of the book refers to the arrival of new settlers around 1898. And to my amazement, I read, "From the Philippines, Benson, Matilda and William Flores (DL 1426), the men beachcombers and fishermen."
On page 42, "... and Ben Flores, who had a float house in the Cove, and liked to play the concertina and sing, could make a little money renting boats."
Five years later, on a sunny April 11, 2016 afternoon, I met the book author Irene Howard, for tea and cookies in her apartment in Vancouver. Irene collected information on the Floreses based on what the Bowen Island residents had provided her when she was doing her research in the 1960s.
Our meeting made me want to revisit Bowen Island. Based on a map provided by the Bowen Island Museum and Archive, I walked around District Lot 1426 wondering how the place, now a residential community, might have looked like during Benson Flores' life in the 1890s.
Was Benson Flores Canada's first Filipino immigrant?
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, I received several inquiries on my blog jlopezmb article regarding Benson Flores. One of them was a Wikipedia contributor who found my blog on Benson Flores and since then has incorporated Benson Flores in Wikipedia's article regarding Filipino Canadians. There were other online references to earlier Filipinos, ahead of Benson Flores, residing in British Columbia. We will talk about this later.
To get more definitive information on the first Filipino immigrants in Canada, I embarked again on a research expedition.
Were there other Filipinos during Benson Flores' time? Who were they? When and how did they arrive in Canada?
In March 2021, journalist and publisher Ted Alcuitas shared with me a newsletter from the Bowen Island Historians "Historiana" dated June 2001. On the last page was a short article titled "Some Notes on Bowen Island's Pioneers..."
"The census (1901) disclosed that a small Filipino community resided on Bowen, probably engaged in both fishing and farming. It included Fernando Toreenya, a fisherman who came to Canada from the Philippines in 1886 with his wife Mary. They lived at 'Bowen Island Bay' (probably Deep Bay or Snug Cove) and had three other Filipino boarders living with them, William Matilde, Antoni Bentorre and Castro Ricardo. Others included fisherman William (Benson) Flores, who lived on a barge in Snug Cove; Bastino Pasento, who called his home Pasento Ranch and died in February 1904, John Delmond(?), and Jose Garcia."
But let us go earlier - 1700s (18th Century)
There were no records found regarding "Filipinos" or other terminologies of inhabitants from Manila, or Las Islas Filipinas, who might have been in Canada for any reason, in the period 1500s to 1600s.
Today, in a number of online encyclopedias and internet articles, there are references to "Manila Men" in the late 1700s who "were recruited in naval operations, aboard the ship San Carlos el Filipino sent to support the short-lived Spanish settlement of Santa Cruz de Nuca and Fort San Miguel, Nootka Island, off the coast of Vancouver".
However, the Wikipedia footnote on "Manila Men" recruited for Santa Cruz de Nuca is a dead web link. The link title indicates the reference was from an author based in New Orleans, Louisiana. The term "Manila Men" was an American term for Filipinos who formed the first Filipino settlement in present-day United States. These Filipinos were believed to have jumped ship coming from Manila on the way to Acapulco, Mexico to escape the harsh conditions on board the Spanish galleons.
According to oral tradition, these Filipinos settled as early as 1763 along the bayous near New Orleans, as far away as they could from the Spanish ports along the Mexican Pacific coast. So for these "Manila Men" to have re-enlisted in the Spanish navy back in Mexico, supporting a military post way up north in Nootka Island between 1789 and 1795, was highly unlikely.
Seamen but not Settlers
Nootka Sound in the 1700s was a rugged remote international port - a major source of sea otter pelts valued as fur in China and Japan. Hence, Russian, American, and English ships called upon there with some frequency.
A review of the exploration history of the Pacific Northwest relates the return of an English ship Iphigenia Nubiana to Nootka Island on April 17, 1789.
A few weeks later, on May 5, 1789, the Spanish ship La Princesa led by Commodore Esteban Jose Martinez, followed by the packet boat San Carlos (alias El Filipino because it was built in Manila, 22 years earlier in 1767), entered the Nootka harbor - marked in Spanish maps as Cala de Los Amigos (present-day Friendly Cove at Yuquot, Nootka Island, British Columbia).
The Spaniards coming from the military port of San Blas, Mexico were there to claim Nootka for the King of Spain.
In his 1788 journal, Spanish Commodore Esteban Martinez described his crew as "either Negroes, Indians (natives of Mexico or California) or Mulattoes (mixed Mexican and Indian) and that very few were actually Spanish born". There was no mention of any Philippine-born crew or of related terminology.
In Nootka, the animosity between the Spaniards and the English led to the brazen seizure of the Iphigenia by the Spaniards. The imprisoned captain, William Douglas, wrote in his journal, "My servant, that was a Manilla Man, and spoke the language very well (Spanish), was not permitted to come near me..."
Douglas' journal relates that several days later, his "Philippine servant was bartering for fish with the Nootka natives".
This is the first documented Filipino, unnamed, to be located in what would be British Columbia, Canada. Records indicate the Filipino servant was with Douglas in Nootka Sound the year before in 1788.
Eventually, the Iphigenia was allowed to leave Nootka on June 1, 1789, with the Filipino servant presumably on board.
Other English ships also arrived in 1789 in Cala de Los Amigos and again were detained by the Spaniards. The dispatches by the Spaniards described the captured English vessels as having crews of various Europeans, Hindus, Filipinos, Malays, Hawaiians and Chinese. The multinational crew and their English officers were imprisoned and shipped to San Blas, Mexico.
How did these Filipinos turn up in English ships? Philippine entrepots, even before the 1780s, regardless of anti-foreigner regulations, were allowing foreign ships to call on port for repairs, supplies and recruitment of Filipinos as seamen, before crossing the Pacific to North America. Filipinos on these non-Spanish ships were referred to as "Manilla men" - not the same "Manila men" referred to in Wikipedia who jumped ship from the Spanish galleons, escaped to New Orleans, Louisiana, and which has been adopted as a local American moniker.
That summer, Santa Cruz de Nutka "village", and El Fuerte San Miguel, were built by the Spaniards in Cala de Los Amigos. But in October 1789, the military post was abandoned and cleared, upon orders from the Viceroy of New Spain.
However at the start of 1790, there was a renewed drive to re-establish the Spanish situation in Nootka under a new Spanish commandant, Francisco de Eliza. Eliza's fleet again included the San Carlos El Filipino.
In 1792, a log report described the Nootka all-male settlement as "consisting of some fifty houses... with about 200 inhabitants, Spaniards and Peru Indians (or Mexican Mestizos)". No Filipinos or related appellations were mentioned.
In 1795 to settle counter British claims in the area, the Nootka settlement was officially relinquished to English by Spain. The buildings and fort were dismantled. Everybody, non-Nootka, left for good, including the San Carlos ship, bound for San Blas, Mexico.
There were no logs found of Filipinos being part of any Spanish ships in the Pacific Northwest in the 1700s, including San Carlos El Filipino, except the Malaspina Scientific Expedition in 1791 which had a crew of four Filipinos coming from Cadiz, Spain and a number drafted in Acapulco, Mexico. Filipinos were in Acapulco, an offshoot of the Manila-Acapulco Spanish galleon trade.
No chronicles were found that record Filipinos as residents of the first and second Spanish settlements in Nootka Island.
Now the 1800s
There are several sources on record regarding the presence of immigrants in Canada. A national one is the Census of Canada, which is available online under Library and Archives in Canada. A provincial one is BC Archives using auxiliary sources such as Records of Birth and Deaths. I also sourced land titles, books, other directories, newspapers from mid-1800s until now, archival library records, personal interviews with authors, among others. Other provincial or territory records, across Canada, were also investigated.
About the Census of Canada
The Dominion of Canada was officially born on July 1, 1867. British Columbia joined in 1871. The first census of the Dominion of Canada was taken in 1871. The first census in British Columbia was in 1881. There were censuses taken as early as 1851 in the eastern provinces of Canada before the formation of the Dominion.
A national census occurred every 10 years in Canada with the original purpose of helping determine parliamentary representation based on population. The censuses were not consistent in the type of data they sought. Not all censuses indicated the year of immigration, or country of origin, or date of birth, to name a few. Not all entries in earlier censuses were uploaded online.
First Filipino Canadians - The Pioneers based on Official Census
The Census of Canada has been conducted at ten-year intervals since 1851. On the third census, the 1881 census was the first to include the western provinces and territories and the first to show the presence of people from the Philippines. This census did not indicate year of immigration, only residency which could mean just being present in an area when the census was taken.
In the 1881 census, there was a record of nine sailors with Malay as nationality, born in the Pacific Islands, and religion listed as Mohamitan, or Mahomitan. All men, within the same age group (late 20's to early 30's), quartered in a vessel with other crew and were all predominantly single from different countries. The ship was docked in the port of New Westminster, British Columbia.
In 19th century Canada, anyone of the brown race was labelled as Malay in nationality.
Mahomitan or Mohamitan is derived from Mohammedan - then used as an assignation for people of the Muslim faith.
The key census entry for the nine sailors is their country of birth - "Manilla" - indicated in the archival paper record (but replaced with Pacific Islands in the digital entry - we don't know why) - so reasonably the nine Malays were Filipinos. Many Filipinos at this time were professing Catholicism. However, Zamboanga was an international port as early as the late 1700s. Hence, the nine sailors were quite likely recruited in Mindanao where there has been a significant population of Muslim Filipinos.
Their last names: Casinto, Gulliamius, Santilio, Covano, Lambrou, Camgaou, Molangambo, Pablo, and Sotello, do not sound like typical Filipino Muslim surnames. Perhaps the census enumerator who was taking down the names spelled according to one's orthographic familiarity, considering the nine sailors possibly spoke little English. Or the Filipino sailors adopted Euro-sounding names as the vessel they were in, had mostly European and Latin American crew.
None of the nine sailor names were listed in a later censuses. In all likelihood, these nine Filipino seamen left Canada with their ship.
The 1891 census did not digitally enter Country of Birth, Place of Birth of Father, and Place of Birth of Mother - the only entries which could disclose ethnic origin. It is a formidable task to track through thousands of names. British Columbia alone had 97,455 results. We are unable to generate any entry which could have been Filipino.
There are archival papers (not digital data) of a Benton Plentore born in "Manillie", whose father and mother were both born in "Manillie". Benton was living in New Westminster in BC, aged 28 and a Catholic. If "Manillie" referred to Manila, Philippines, then Benton could plausibly be Filipino.
The Benton Plentore name is not listed in the earlier 1881 nor in the later 1901 censuses. But could Benton Plentore possibly be the Benson Prescate, ten years later in the 1901 census?
It is in the 1901 census where we began to encounter the term "Filipino" for ethnic origin and the Philippines for a place of birth. This census also enumerates for the first time Year of Immigration.
By 1901, there were 19 people born in the Philippines and whose ethnic origin is Filipino, living in Canada, all residing in British Columbia. There are no records of Filipinos living in other provinces or territories. Those living in British Columbia resided in Bowen Island and the City of Vancouver.
Let us go back to the Bowen Island Historiana article (see Part I), where we heard of Fernando and Mary Toreenya, William Matilde, Antoni Bentorre, Castro Ricardo, William (Benson) Flores, Bastino Pasento, John Delmond, and Jose Garcia who were all settlers in Bowen Island in the latter part of the 1800s until the turn of the century.
To be naturalized in the Dominion of Canada then means one would be granted the rights of someone born within the British Empire, but not be granted British citizenship. For local applications, one was considered a Canadian.
No data can be found for Bastino Pasento and Jose Garcia in any of the censuses earlier and later than 1901. Jose Garcia did appear in both the Henderson BC Gazetteer and BC Directory starting in 1899, but only his name and livelihood as a fisherman were listed.
For some reason, Benson Flores does not appear in the 1901 census or the censuses earlier but shows up 10 years later in the 1911 census. Perhaps he was not in his residence when the census enumerator came knocking on doors.
There was also a Benson Prescate living in Bowen Island in 1901, 35 years old, but no year of birth, immigrated in 1876, and naturalized in 1898. Too young to be Benson Flores, and three years shy of what should be the age of Benton Plentore in 1901, that is 38 years old. Perhaps?
The other Filipinos listed in the 1901 census immigrated around or much later than the Bowen Island group, but none earlier.
How did they get to Canada and why Bowen Island or the City of Vancouver to begin with? The nine Malay sailors in 1881 give us a hint.
Possibly they were crew members of a ship that travelled across the Pacific and called on the bustling timber port of Vancouver. Since immigration rules were more lax then, these Filipinos might have decided to settle in Canada.
Why Bowen Island for some? Bowen Island was attractive to immigrants because there was the opportunity to pre-empt land, farm, raise livestock or be employed in logging. One can live off the land and fish from the water.
Combining all sources, in the 1890s, there were 11 Filipinos living in Vancouver, one near Mission, and 10 in Bowen Island.
Is this it? Are these the Pioneer Filipino Canadians on record?
First Filipino Canadian: Benson Flores arrived 1861
After combing through the Censuses of Canada as early as 1825 until 1921, and perusing archives, directories and all sources mentioned earlier, the earliest Filipino on record to have immigrated to Canada turns out to be Benson Flores. Listed in the 1911 Census of Canada as Benjamin Flores with 1861 as the year of immigration, this is the earliest date of arrival and eventual settlement for anyone of Filipino nationality.
Benson Flores was born in May 1846, a Catholic, single all his life, with Bowen Island, British Columbia as his residence.
Benson was probably a strapping 15-year-old when he landed, most likely as a young seaman for a foreign vessel docking in Vancouver, BC. In the early 1800s, boys as young as 12 were recruited as ship's crew.
The Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade's last trip was in 1815. Benson was not even born yet.
A closer look at the census print indicates Benson was naturalized only in 1909, two years before the 1911 census.
Based on the 1901 Census of Canada, the earliest Filipino to be naturalized was Antoine Bentorre in 1880, followed by Castro Ricardo in 1886.
What does naturalized mean then? Before 1947, people born in Canada typically referred to themselves as Canadian citizens but they were actually British subjects. For people born outside of Canada, naturalization did not mean a British citizenship, nor losing their original nationality, but merely having the rights and duties of a British subject within the colony of Canada.
However, the Immigration Act of 1910 used the term "Canadian citizen" to include "a person naturalized under the laws of Canada who had not subsequently become an alien or lost Canadian domicile".
This means that it was only in 1910, regardless of the year of naturalization, when all naturalized individuals began to be referred to as Canadian citizens, within Canada. Outside Canada, they still maintained their original nationality.
On January 1, 1947, the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1946, which created fully independent Canadian citizenship, separate from British law and status as British subjects, came into force. By this time, Benson and his compatriots had already passed away.
Who was Benson Flores?
Benson Flores was everybody's friend in Bowen Island.
Based on Irene Howard's book, "Bowen Island 1872-1972", Ben Flores had a float house in Snug Cove, Bowen Island and liked to play the concertina and sing. He was a fisherman, a beachcomber, a trapper and operated the first boat rentals, as Bowen Island was increasingly becoming a tourist destination from folks in Vancouver (called Gastown or Granville before 1886). In addition to his shack in Snug Cove, he owned land on Bowen Island, closer to the foot of Mount Gardner, District Lot 1426. Ben Flores was a giving person, as he "would paddle around in his dugout with a sack of crabs and dump them on your beach".
In his latter years, people would call him "Old Ben".
In an audio recording, a neighbor George Dorman said, "Ben Flores was a coloured boy and was my greatest friend. I don't think I have met anyone who is his equal. He was such a good friend. He was genuine - he would share, share and share alike - in all the work we did together. He was really a good person. He knew people before they even came to Bowen Island. As far as I know, he was a Filipino - from the Philippine Islands. He was a fisherman. It used to be that they came on these old windjammers and they would get up here and see our beautiful country and they would start fishing. I still have a picture of Old Ben's boat with about 25 people on it. Taken on the beach right beside his cabin. He homesteaded first right beside Trout Lake. The land was too far from the ocean and he had to carry everything in. He was still there when we first came there. I think it was the turn of the century (1900s). He moved back to Snug Cove."
There were no records found that Benson Flores ever returned for a visit to the Philippines.
Death of Benson Flores
Based on the Certificate of Registration of Death, Benson Flores was born in 1848, and died at the age of 81 on April 11, 1929 at 5 a.m. at the Vancouver General Hospital. He was buried on April 13, 1929 in the Horne Addition section of Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, BC.
His birth record in the Census of Canada was May 1846 (no specific date taken). Because it was most likely Benson who provided the 1911 Census of Canada data when he was only 65 years old, we will use 1846. Considering he was born in May but died in April, he was actually 82 years old when he passed away. Cause of death was listed as chronic nephritis and chronic cystitis, which he suffered from for almost one and a half years prior.
Witness to his death was Madeline Ray, a long-time personal acquaintance of Benson living in Vancouver, who attested and signed that Benson Flores was unmarried, and had no next-of-kin within the province of British Columbia.
Benson was a bachelor all his life as indicated in the census, his death record, and in his February 1927 will. In the probate, Benson bequeathed his assets to four residents of Bowen Island: Martha Cameron ($500 which today is worth $7,308.51), Mah Hong ($150 which today is worth $2,192.55), Donald Cameron ($100 which today is worth $1,461.70), and Kenneth Cameron (rowboats, Evinrude engine, gun, and all furniture). We do not know the exact relations between Benson and the beneficiaries.
At the time of his death, Benson had $353.35 (which today is worth $5,164.94) in the Bank of Montreal, $5.00 in cash, $50.00 value for the boats, shack and furniture, a promissory note of $795.00 from Mr. J. T. Little for a total of $1,203.35.
However, because of Benson's costly hospital bills, not counting funeral, loans, and other expenses, the total liabilities were $1,212.50. His estate was declared insolvent.
Visiting Benson Flores
On August 3, 2021, I called and requested Mountain View Cemetery if I can visit the unmarked grave of Benson Flores. That sunny afternoon, Grant, one of the cemetery caretakers, drove me to the site in the Horne Addition (between 31st and 33rd Avenue next to Fraser Street). Grant had just earlier positioned on the plot a small yellow flag on a wire stick, with the written name "Benson Flores". Grant informed me the coffin was laid from the west (the head) to the east. The flag was on the head part.
As I stood, I reflected on the life of the first recorded Filipino in Canada as an immigrant. I felt a sense of closeness with the adventures that Benson Flores had more than a century ago. Then I half-knelt, and said, "Benson, if you can hear me, wherever you are, I want you to know that you are not forgotten..."
* This article was originally published in four parts by Canadian Filipino Net.
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