Passages: Pumanaw-Ontario loses its first Filipina lawyer Cornelia Soberano

Toronto, Ontario

Cornelia Soberano:   Requiem for a Champion

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in service to others.” – Mahatma Gandhi

By Ricardo Salise Caluen

Humble Beginnings

It was with a sense of personal —and communal –loss that I received word about Cornelia’s passing last December 1st in Reno, Nevada. Close friends and former colleagues expressed the same sentiment as soon as the sad news spread in Canada and the United States. This is evidenced by the outpouring of tributes and fond reminiscences about this trailblazing Filipino who left her mark both in Canada and the United States.  Today’s younger generation in Canada may know very little about Cornelia, hence, my inspiration to write about her saga because it mirrors our own in some respects as a community in diaspora.

Our paths first crossed in 1993 when I had just immigrated to Canada. A burning issue galvanized the Toronto community at the time.  Some Filipino and Vietnamese youths were banned at the Scarborough Town Centre. They cried racism. The Kababayan Community Centre—where I had recently been employed—took the cudgels for the teenagers. I wrote and directed a play dramatizing the plight of the youth. Cornelia, being a lawyer, readily volunteered her legal expertise to the campaign.  Since then we became good friends and not only comrades-in-arms in community organizing.

Unexpected twists and turns were the leitmotif in the life of Cornelia who never shied away from telling friends about the family’s humble beginnings in Asingan, Pangasinan where she was born on January 12, 1952. The small town came to prominence because of its famous son, President Fidel V. Ramos.  The family eventually moved to Manila where Cornelia graduated from the Philippine College of Commerce with an Accounting degree in 1975.

As fate would have it, Cornelia’s older brother Nestor, who worked in a hotel, had offered to act as tour guide to two Canadian guests who wanted to visit Baguio City. There the visitors were impressed with the quality of the wood carvings they had seen in the mountain city and soon enough propositioned the Soberano family—composed of parents Sinforiano and the former Isabel Arevalo and brother Nestor—to become partners in an export-import enterprise marketing wood carvings in Canada.

The business opened opportunities for some members of the Soberano family to immigrate to Canada and settle in Niagara Falls where the Ex-Im company was headquartered. Cornelia’s background in Accounting came handy when she applied for a position with the Royal Bank of Canada. Among Cornelia’s earliest Canadian friends in Niagara Falls is Vilma Taylor who remembers her as being “amiable, vibrant, and driven…Though we had only one chance meeting in Toronto many years after she left Niagara Falls….I will never forget her.”

Indeed, the lure of greener pastures in Toronto pulled Cornelia out of Niagara Falls in 1978. Soon, the new immigrant found herself working as a clerk in the Toronto City Council offices. Cornelia was prepared for the job. As a fresh college graduate, she had clerked for Justice Fred Ruiz Castro who would soon be appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 

An officemate from the early 1980s—Willa Wilbur—fondly remembers Cornelia. “She was always ready to help when I was new at city hall. She was kind and always had a pot of rice going to share a meal when needed. When people were so pushy to get to the front of the line she would say they were just more anxious than I was to get to Church. Cornelia always wanted to help people – she shared her time and energy all the time.”

Eventually, Cornelia  would work for Mayor June Rowlands . But Cornelia was not one to rest in the comforts of a position that afforded a steady source of income, even if modest.  She believed Filipinos or immigrants for that matter will excel just as well in the professions. She now set her sights on the legal profession.

Cornelia matriculated in York University’s Osgoode Hall and in 1988  was called to the bar of the Law Society of Ontario. Cornelia’s student years at Osgoode Hall were crucial in the crystallization of her goals in life. As a law student volunteer, she got exposed to the many hardships and legal challenges domestic workers (today’s caregivers) and refugees faced. She has found a new mission in life beyond being a lawyer.

The Student-Activist

Little is known of Cornelia’s political persuasion as a student at the Philippine College of Commerce which was a bedrock of student unrest in the tumultuous Manila of the 1970s.  But she certainly got heavily involved in a new brand of activism in the Toronto immigrant community in the 1980s.

Toronto had the lion’s share in the number of Foreign Domestic Workers that ran into the thousands that included nationals from Great Britain and other European countries, the Caribbean, and the Philippines (that would soon become the number one source of FDPs). The Foreign Domestic Program had been likened to indentured servitude. It is against this backdrop that Cornelia has carved her niche in the campaign for employment rights and better immigration policy in Canada.

The role of faith was significant in her life and once considered being a nun.Here she is shown helping the saint, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. (Photo provided)

Cornelia was elected president of the International Coalition to End Domestics’ Exploitation or INTERCEDE while still a graduating law student. At the time of her election she was quoted by the Intercede Newsletter saying “As domestic workers become aware of their rights, it is imperative that the corresponding and necessary support system and services be made available and accessible.”

Two former domestic workers from that period who themselves have become pillars in the campaign for caregiver rights and welfare in Canada consider Cornelia as their inspiration.

(Pura Velasco) “I met Cornelia  at a foreign domestic workers’ meeting in 1987. What impressed me the most was her advice to us to self-organize; understand our situation as temporary workers in Canada; and be assertive in demanding for our immigration and employment rights. After the meeting, she told me, ‘Pura, be strong, you’re the worker, you have the moral authority to speak your truth as a worker, much more than us, the advocates in our community.’

Cornelia was a very generous and kind friend. Every time there was a TTC transport strike she would share her place for Ging Hernandez and I to stay. She provided pro bono immigration and employment legal assistance to so many domestic workers. Thank you so much Cornelia.
So many domestic workers/caregivers will never forget the assistance and friendship you have given us.”

(Erlinda Lising) “I consider Cornelia a loving friend, the most beautiful human being I’ve ever met in Canada. I highly respected her for being a kind soul. She was ever-willing to help anyone who needed help. She was a fighter for domestic workers’ rights. She assisted me a lot in my advocacy work in helping abused caregivers especially in emergency rescue situations. She was a very conscientious person in all that she did for our friendship when she still resided in Toronto. She never failed me and that supported and lifted my spirits in my volunteer community work. My memory of her continues to inspire me.  I feel sorry for her family’s loss. She will always be in my heart and treasure her with admiration and gratitude for all the contributions she made in Toronto.”

The First Filipino Lawyer in Ontario

Shayna Kravetz, Jewish scholar and lawyer, gives us a glimpse of Cornelia’s early years as a  lawyer. “I first met Cornelia Soberano at what would become our shared law offices at 69 Elm Street in Toronto in the late 1980s. The small refurbished building on a side street downtown housed ten or so lawyers sharing space, but among them all I immediately found a friend in Cornelia. She was a feminist, an activist, a woman of faith, and at the same time open, modest, and friendly. We often talked our cases through with each other, discussing strategy and approaches in advance, and outcomes in the triumphant or sometimes mournful rehash after we got back to the office. I was a few years ahead of her in our respective professional progress, and it was a pleasure to help her with my ‘vast’ experience.

 Our feminism was another point of sharing. She was very engaged with her community and worked hard to secure rights for domestic workers – both to gain entry to and to become eligible to remain in Canada. Many women’s lives were changed through her intervention, and she worked to ensure that the struggle would outlive her through her deep involvement in  INTERCEDE. Last, although we belonged to different faiths, the role of faith in both our lives was significant. She talked with me about Catholicism – its rituals, its moral stances, the challenges and comforts it provided. I often talked with her about my life as a Jew too – the struggle of being a feminist within Orthodoxy, the imperative and value of a belief in God in handling this wonderful and terrible world. I was tremendously lucky to have found someone who shared so much and so easily with me. Although it is many years since I last saw Cornelia in person, I feel her absence deeply. Her influence and friendship changed me and still resonate with me.”

Indeed, Cornelia has touched so many lives. To the Honorable Delano Europa, recently retired after serving for 25 years as Ontario Justice of the Peace, Cornelia was a morale-booster. “Being the first Filipino barrister in Toronto, she was the star of the 90’s and I had the fortune of meeting her and we fast became friends. She attended my swearing in as justice of the peace. She was a community leader for women, for people of color, for Filipinos. She encouraged and pushed me to take up law here and to stay the course as I was then 48 years old in 1993 in the University of Toronto Faculty of Law among twenty-somethings. She was the rallying symbol of Filipinos giving impetus to their aspirations by her example. In her drive to make newcomers competitive in the labour market, she organized seminars and workshops inviting experienced professionals and experts in the fields.”

Yola Grant, law colleague and fellow community activist,  remembers how impressed she was at Cornelia pulling off a big Toronto event. “Aside from our activism work together, organizing with domestic workers for labour standards reform and immigration changes, I vividly recall Cornelia’s work with the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Equity Department around 1999/2000 when she curated a large showing of Filipino-Canadian painters. This was a testament to her diverse interests and her energetic cultivation of community.” Ms. Grant was referring to the 2-week long art exhibit held at Osgoode Hall in June 1999 and billed called “Art, Justice, Rights” which merited a half-spread coverage on the Toronto Star. It aimed to promote the law profession among the different ethnic communities in the area. Proceeds were donated to the city’s “Out of the Cold Program” benefiting the homeless.

Cornelia’s concern for the needy went beyond Canada. Carol Banez, retired gerontology nurse and known in the community as the soul of the award-winning marching band—the Philippine Heritage Band—remembers the time Cornelia organized a dinner fundraiser in 1994  billed as “Friends for A Cause”. The PHB provided entertainment at the fundraiser the proceeds of which went to a partner NGO in the Philippines assisting street children.  She adds: “Cornelia was a very smart, down to earth, soft spoken, and outstanding community leader.  We both belonged to the erstwhile PND Committee that promoted the celebration of Philippine National Day every June 12 at Seton Park for several years (as opposed to the Philippine Independence Day program organized by the Philippine Consulate at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square). 

The Honourable Mary Ross-Hendriks, Justice of the Peace, hails Cornelia as “a remarkable woman and all of us who knew her thought the world of her! I’ve made a donation  to the Legal Education and Action Fund (“LEAF”), which is a Canadian legal organization that advocates and litigates for equality for women, in her honour.

Next: To other shores – Soberano brought her activism to Hawaii

(Memorial gifts to honor the memory of Cornelia may be made to Virginia Cantorna, Maui Filipino Working Group, 135 S. Wakea Ave., Suite 213, Kahului, Hawaii. 96732 or to Venmo or Paypal:

About the author:

Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario. A native of Iligan City, he graduated
with bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from De La Salle University in Manila. He taught at the Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology where he was Chair of the Department of Political Science. He took up a Masters in History at University of Toronto in 1987 as a scholar of the Rotary Foundation. He moved to Canada in 1992 and currently works with the City of Toronto. A former editor of Toronto-based The Filipino Bulletin, he contributes to Philippine dailies and online magazines as a freelance writer.




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