Group photo outside Parliament from Pinoys on Parliament 2019 conference
After its founding in 2018, the first Pinoys on Parliament conference took place in 2019. Image: Pinoys on Parliament/Provided.
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For Filipino-Canadians, Balikbayan is the act of returning home

The term Balikbayan (Bah-Lyk-Bah-Yahn) comes from the Tagalog words balik, which means “to return,” and bayan, meaning “country.” It refers to the act of immigrants or members of the Filipino diaspora returning home to the Philippines.

Balikbayan is the theme of this year’s Pinoys on Parliament: a conference for Filipino-Canadian youth. It’s the first and largest event of its kind.

“Most Filipinos think ‘Balikbayan box’ when they think of the word Balikbayan,” explained the Director of Communications, Rome Lim. “A Balikbayan box is [when] you put a bunch of goods in there to send back home to the Philippines. Balikbayan actually also means ‘return’ … So we decided to name the conference Balikbayan because, you know, it’s a return to in-person.”

Lim is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Scarborough’s journalism program. He’ll be coming to Ottawa on Feb. 24 for the first time for the conference, alongside other organizers and delegates from across Canada. 

As a youth conference, PoP is open to any Filipino-Canadians between 16 and 28. From high school students to postgraduate students and young professionals, the youngest generation of Filipino-Canadians will come together as a community in Ottawa. (Fittingly, Lim said they do a lot of outreach on their Instagram.)

Many attendees are members of FILCASA, the overarching student association for Filipino students across the country. Individual Filipino student associations send delegations, including the University of Ottawa.

U of O’s FILSA will also partially play the role of host, and some of the weekend’s events are even taking place on campus.

When the Fulcrum spoke with FILSA’s president, Carlo Padilla, he explained the conference’s history and ties to the University of Ottawa. Being a FILSA member for “about half a decade,” Padilla was there during PoP’s inaugural year.

“So the conference was started as an actual event of the Filipino Students Association … basically the executive team at that time, they were the ones that really started that whole movement … Now, they’re all graduated. And so Pinoys on Parliament has become its own thing now. And Pinoys on Parliament has branched into a subset of a different non-profit organization that [are] centred around Filipino youth, essentially.”

For Padilla, who remembers PoP before the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s theme is spot on. When asked about how it felt to be returning to an in-person conference after a few years of being virtual, he said, “It feels amazing … There’s a lot of people from outside of Ottawa that I haven’t seen in a very, very long time, other than through zoom. So it’s like the theme really hits deep, because I will be getting to see them for the first time in so many years, like actually in-person, in the same room. You know, we’re all celebrating Filipino culture together … it’ll be very, very nostalgic.”

For Lim, PoP is all about creating “a space for all Filipino youth to engage in community and to see themselves represented. And also to know that their experiences are not singular, they are experiences that we all have and can relate to and share.”

At PoP, delegates will have the opportunity to network with each other and take part in workshops “led by Filipino professionals in all types of fields.” A gala night sees many delegates choose to wear traditional Filipino clothing.

One of the cornerstone events of PoP has always been its keynote speakers. Past speakers have included “prominent Filipino/a/x-Canadian leaders.” In the last few years, Members of Parliament Dr. Rey Pagtakhan and Rechie Valdez have spoken at the conference, as well as TV personality Melissa Grelo. This year, co-host of the Great Canadian Baking Show, Ann Polner, is the keynote speaker. 

This year’s conference will be the fifth conference, and the first time PoP has been able to gather in person since the COVID-19 pandemic. Though he said it’s been “a beast” organizing a youth conference, Lim and the rest of the volunteer organizers are looking forward to meeting each other in person.

“It’s just a lot, but honestly, it pays off in the end, because when you attend the conferences, you’re just like ‘oh, I’m so glad everyone’s here.’”

For Filipino-Canadian youth, defining “home” isn’t easy, and returning home in the traditional sense of Balikbayan isn’t always possible. Being able to gather in person again for Pinoys on Parliament is one way delegates experience community and connection to their collective identity as Filipino-Canadians.