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Gawad Kalinga is a global movement of nation builders who are committed to expanding the work and advocacy of caring and sharing across countries, to build a better, safer and kinder world.

Ambassador Thornley's Speech at the GK Global Summit 2012

[Date Created: June 26, 2012]

by Christopher Thornley

Ambassador of Canada to the Philippines

Toronto, Canada

Thank you everybody, good evening. Bonsoir. Magandang gabi sa inyong lahat. After two years, it gets a little easier, I could tell you that. Ambassador, Your Excellency Leslie Gatan, my good friend of course Tony Meloto, my friend Luis Oquinena, Undersecretary Oquinena, Frank Switzer of course from SunLife who’s been so active in supporting Gawad Kalinga, and many others, and all of my good friends in the Filipino-Canadian community, it’s such a pleasure and honor to be here with you tonight and to be associated with Gawad Kalinga.

Ambassador Thornley speaking at the GK Global Summit 2012 in Toronto

You know when Tony asked me if I would participate in this event, I had to tell him that I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to. That I would love to come, but the government of Canada was going through some budgetary constraints and I didn’t know if I would get permission to travel here. But I made a case and I have to tell you it wasn’t very difficult, and when I went back to Ottawa and explained the reason for coming, I was told that I shouldn’t even have asked. That it was very very important, that it’s a priority for the government of Canada. And I was very pleased to be here.

I’ve had a wonderful time already. Tony and I were together yesterday morning with a number of corporate leaders – Canadian corporate leaders, and I must tell you the enthusiasm for working with GK was very strong. These were companies that are already involved with Gawad Kalinga such as Sun Life, and others who are interested. And I’m confident with the hard work of all of you, with the very persuasive advocacy of Tony – who can say no to Tony – that you will see greater Canadian participation in the Philippines, both corporate and of course individual.

Spirit of Optimism

Well I don’t think I need to tell all of you, you’re aware of it. But my message that I’ve been giving as I’ve been back here I’ve used the opportunity to meet with a variety of people – is the real spirit of optimism in the Philippines right now. The Aquino government, the Aquino administration, is carrying out its straight path campaign, its anti-corruption campaign. We’ve seen the actions that have taken place recently. It’s encouraging to the international community to see it. And Filipinos I think, ordinary Filipinos, your average Filipino – I can sense that kind of optimism as well. I think people who have been marginalized, who have been discouraged, are really starting to feel some hope and are very very motivated by the leadership from their government.

Somebody said to me the other day – this is not my quote but somebody said “Filipinos in the Philippines are acting like Filipinos in Canada.” And I said I didn’t know what that means. Well they said “Well you know Filipinos are honest, hardworking people, but they have to have the enabling environment for that.” And that enabling environment is there. While there’s still a lot of progress to be made of course, but it’s really quite amazing what I’ve experienced in my first two years in the Philippines.

Spirit of Social Entrepreneurship

I’ve met a lot of wonderful people. Of course the people from Gawad Kalinga, but there’s many others. There’s a real spirit I think which has been led by Tony. Tony has mentored people and set an example for people. A real spirit of social entrepreneurship. I had the real honor of meeting people like Efren Penaflorida, the CNN hero who has the pushcart classrooms in the poor areas of the Philippines; Reese Fernandez who’s working with the residents of the Payatas dump to develop chic fashion accessories through her Rags2Riches group; Mark Ruiz who’s Reese’s husband and Bam Aquino, a name that says something, have a little organization called Hapinoy – microfinancing for sari-sari stores. These are all young people – very young people – some of them from privileged backgrounds, some not, who have just taken it upon themselves to do something. And I think that’s the spirit of Gawad Kalinga and that is rubbing off in the Philippines and I think it’s rubbing off in Canada as well so it’s very very encouraging to see this. I think these people and all of you are giving hope and supporting and leveraging the natural intelligence, industry and initiative of Filipinos. People just need a helping hand. They need to know we’re all in it together. Walang Iwanan. And everybody rises.

Spirit of Gawad Kalinga

Of course when I mention his name a number of times, the granddaddy of all these impressive movements, is our highly-respected friend Tony Meloto – Tito Tony. And I don’t need to tell you but it bears repeating – that Tony has been recognized in many different ways, including by the eminent Canadian philanthropist Jeffrey Skoll whom we all know. However, the most significant recognition which I have had the honor to witness on a number of occasions is in the dignity that is restored in the faces of the GK participants. And I say they are participants because they aren’t beneficiaries, they’re partners in building their own future. And when I have visited GK villages and experienced the dignity and pride that is restored, it is really nothing short of miraculous and transformative.

>> Read more in Tony Meloto's "Skoll Award to  Gawad Kalinga: Freedom to Serve"

Let me share with you a few stories about Gawad Kalinga that I have had the honor to be involved with. I guess through my role and working with Canadian organizations that have affiliated themselves with GK, I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing firsthand what’s taking place – the miracles that are taking place.

Corporate Canada

I’ve visited the Sun Life villages a number of times. When you go there you can see the Canadian presence and the Canadian partnerships that are in place. Sun Life, as most of you know, has been in the Philippines since 1895. It’s quite amazing when you think about it, and I’m so proud that they are supporting their community and giving back to it.

But there are many other members of corporate Canada that are already involved. And I know that after Tony’s visit here to Toronto and to Canada, there’s going to be many more very soon.

Ambassador Thornley with GK Executive Director Luis Oquinena and Telus representatives

My first experience with GK was during the Telus Annual Day of Service. Telus, a large – well you probably, most of know what Telus is – but Telus has 9,000 employees in the Philippines and they have a day of service and they bring volunteers from Canada. It was quite a moving moment when I looked at this really big man, he was from Prince George, BC and he was sitting in a corner and he was quietly crying. And I said to him you know “What’s wrong?” Maybe I thought he had jet lag or something and he said “No,” he said “It’s just so moving to see this.” He said “Every Canadian should be experiencing this.”

Well what’s also something that was very moving for me and underscored a lot is I’ve tried to involve my family as much as possible. I’ve been accused of using my 11 year-old son Jack shamelessly as a prop, I don’t mind doing that if it’s for the good of Gawad Kalinga. But during one of the visits – I was telling Tony about this earlier – I kind of lost track of Jack. I wasn’t worried, he was in a GK village, there was no worry about him coming into any harm. There’s no crime in GK villages. People don’t need to have that kind of life anymore. But I found him, and he was sitting there with some other kids his own age, and they had a little matchbox that Filipino kids have with little kind of rooms in it, with spiders. And they were racing the spiders up and down the street. So that’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? You know, you can have my son who’s lucky enough to come from a privileged background, to live in one of the most prosperous communities in Manila, to be visiting a Gawad Kalinga village and to be having fun with kids his own age. There should be more of that going on, but that’s how we’re getting there.

The Ambassador on a GK Build with his son Jack

The other thing I want to tell you about Jack is that in another visit to another village, we were doing some work and again I use him because we ended up in the front page of the Philippine Star. But what people didn’t know, the back story was, the story was of us passing bricks to each other. But he had been telling me in the honest way that kids talk to get to work. Because I was too busy mixing around, talking to people, but really, it is about getting to work and doing something and being in it together.

I visited the village of another insurance company that’s also present in the Philippines. Frank it’s okay I guess if I say it – Manulife. I think the more the merrier is really the theme for tonight. But it was another touching moment because I was there with Tony and it was the day when they were turning over the homes to the residents, to the new residents. And they were getting their keys, and their keys were being presented based on the amount of sweat equity they have put into it. So the people who put the most sweat equity got the first choice for a home. But for me it was such a fundamental experience. Because as somebody said to me “You know Ambassador, this may be the very first time that some of these people have had a home.” They had been informal settlers, squatters, and they had a proper roof over their head, a proper community. That really hit home for me what a moment that was for these people. There’s always a lot of tears and lumps in the throats of these moments, but I was sitting beside a man who’s probably about the same age as me and you know I could just see the tears going down his cheek. He wasn’t really crying but he was so moved and he said “You know for me, this will change my life. It will change the life of my children. My daughters will be safe, my kids will be safe. We have a future now.”

The Ambassador with representatives from Manulife

One last story. I can tell stories all day but I think probably you might be hungry as well and there’s some great performers waiting up. And by the way, Jessica Sanchez should’ve won American Idol. I think she actually did win. I’ve tried to involve my Embassy as well with Gawad Kalinga and we do service in the community. We try and give back a little bit. We did some work with a Gawad Kalinga village in Taguig, and it was again another one of those moments when we could see the pride in the faces of the residents. And they took me around and I went into people’s homes. It felt a little bit strange going into people’s homes, but the people really wanted to show me and again they were so proud of what they had to see.

I’ve been around the country now, and I visited another very interesting Gawad Kalinga project in a mine that’s operating in Zamboanga del Norte. Zamboanga del Norte is not exactly the most peaceful place. I had to go in with a fair amount of security. But I really didn’t need it, and I attribute that in many ways to Gawad Kalinga. We were visiting the mine that is owned and run by the Canadian company TVI. TVI is represented here tonight. They’ve really decided and made a conscious decision that they have to invest in the sustainability of the community that they’re supporting – Canatuan in Zamboanga del Norte. And Gawad Kalinga has been a very big part of that. You know there’s MILF camps in either side of this mine. But because of the prosperity that’s being developed, because of the partnership with GK, because of the homes that people have, their security people don’t even carry guns. They don’t need to. And that’s how that kind of instability is going to be solved – through prosperity, through ordinary people having homes and livings.

The GK community sponsored by TVI in Zamboanga del Norte;

TVI Vice President for Corporate Social Commitments Renne Subido

The Philippines at its Finest

Well to me, this is really the Philippines at its finest, and Canada really is very proud to be a part of it. Through government involvement – but I tell you that’s a very small part of it – through individuals such as all of you and the individuals we work with in the Philippines, and through corporate Canada. And Corporate Canada needs to do more with Gawad Kalinga because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s good business for them as well and they are all benefiting. We all gain through involvement.

In fact what I tell people is it’s not corporate social responsibility. Let’s not say that. It’s not aid, it’s not charity, it’s investing in our collective future. It’s helping a country that should be taking its rightful place in the international community. And the Philippines is getting there – much more quickly than people would’ve thought. And again it’s such a transformative experience to be seeing that.

Most importantly though, it’s about people. It’s the fact that we’re all in it together, that there are human bridges out there that make the whole world one community. The people we see in the Gawad Kalinga villages don’t need our charity. They don’t need pity. They’re proud people. But they need hope, everybody needs hope. They need to know that people care about them and want them to succeed. And to me, that’s such a Canadian value, the thought that everybody should have equality of opportunity. And Gawad Kalinga is providing that equality of opportunity to people.

And when I talk about people I wanna tell you about a person that I’ve met that’s a great example. It’ s a gentleman by the name of Warren Tait. Warren’s received some awards and recognition from GK and from the Philippines, but he’s one of the most modest people I’ve met. He works for Telus, he goes every weekend to their village and gives his time. And I asked him why he did it and he says “Well, I can’t not do it. They’re expecting it of me.” And he told me how much more he gains than the people who are in the village gain. And he said you know, he works with them, he plays with the kids, but he said for him, it’s been a life-changing experience.

Warren Tait with GK Kapitbahayans and other Telus representatives during the turnover of their village in Brgy. Kasama Ka, Batasan Hills, Quezon City

Well Gawad Kalinga really is an amazing story. It’s about people like all of you led by Tony who have a goal to eradicate poverty – but in a way that builds dignity, pride, and sustainability. You should all give yourselves a hand because that’s an amazing goal to have.

Canada is immensely proud just to be a small part of that, and as Canada’s representative in the Philippines, I am personally proud and gratified to see this important Summit here in Canada, in Toronto, and to know that we’re all a part of it. Canada and the Philippines have a relationship that is growing stronger in leaps and bounds but the ties that bind us are the people. This Gawad Kalinga Global Summit is a shining example of that – to ensure that no one is left behind.

Maraming Salamat po, thank you very much.


The Gawad Kalinga Global Summit 2012 took place in Toronto, Canada on June 8-9, 2012. Dedicated to the eradication of poverty through the restoration of human dignity and a culture of caring and sharing, the event hopes to share the GK community development template and engage like-minded individuals and institutions to help end poverty, the GK way. Through the Summit, we hope to share the GK way with global citizens to reach out to poor communities and help end poverty where it exists.

You too can be part of the Gawad Kalinga family! You too can partner with GK in its mission to end poverty!

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