First Filipino politician Conrad Santos dies at 81

Conrad Santos, first Filipino to win political office
Winnipeg, Manitoba

First Filipino-Canadian MLA Conrad Santos dies at 81
By Ted Alcuitas

The man who put Filipinos on the political map of this country has died in Winnipeg, his home for more than five decades.

Conrad Santos, the first Filipino-Canadian to be elected to a provincial legislative assembly died at Winnipeg’s Victoria General Hospital on Feb. 29. He was 81. The cause of death was not known.

He is to be buried today, Sunday, March 6 with Thompson in the Park funeral home making the arrangements.

In a statement, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger offered his condolences to Santos’ family on behalf of Manitobans.

“It was with deep sadness that we learned of the passing of Dr. Santos,” Selinger said.

“Dr. Santos served his adopted province and his constituency with dedication and self-sacrifice. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time.”

Conrad Santos was first elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly under the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1981, serving for five terms (1981-1988 and 1990-2007) before stepping down in 2007.

Born in the Philippines and a native Bulakeno, he was educated at Harvard University and the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in Political Science. He moved to Winnipeg in 1965 after obtaining a teaching position at the University of Manitoba. He remained a tenured professor at the U of M until his election to the legislature. Santos also worked as a consultant for the Instituto Centro-Americano de Administracion Publica in Costa Rica, and was a board member of the Citizenship Council of Manitoba from 1977 to 1980.

Santos was active in the Winnipeg Filipino community for many years serving as an adviser to many organizations notably the Philippine Association of Manitoba (PAM). He was a member of the Knights of Rizal, the organization that first broke the story of his death.

The soft-spoken and eccentric Santos led a colourful and sometimes controversial political life. Long before riding a bike became popular, he was already riding one to the legislature from his home in Fort Garry with his iconic Che Guevarra hat and a sling leather bag at his side.

Santos was first elected to the Manitoba legislature in the 1981 provincial election as a New Democrat in the northwest Winnipeg riding of Burrows, defeating NDP-turned-Progressive Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Ben Hanuschak. He was re-elected in the 1986 election. In June 1984, there were unconfirmed rumours that he was considering a move to the Progressive Conservative Party.

In 1987, he was accused of trying to use his political position to prevent Winnipeg School Division No. 1 from expropriating a house he owned. 

Santos lost the Burrows NDP nomination to Doug Martindale in 1988, and subsequently entered the party’s leadership election. He was not regarded as a serious candidate, and received only five votes on the first ballot. Santos ran for mayor of Winnipeg in 1989, but was again not considered a serious candidate and finished a distant fourth. 

In 1990, Santos won the NDP nomination for Broadway, another northwest riding, by a single vote over favoured candidate Marianne Cerilli. He subsequently defeated Liberal incumbent Avis Gray in the 1990 general election, and was re-elected in the 1995 election.

In 1995, he endorsed Lorne Nystrom’s bid to lead the federal NDP. 

When the Broadway riding was eliminated by redistribution in 1999, Santos won the NDP nomination in Wellington (also in Winnipeg’s northwest), and was returned by a wide margin in the 1999 provincial election.

He was again re-elected in the 2003 election. 

Santos was named Deputy Speaker after the elections of 1986 and 1999, but has never been appointed to a cabinet position.

Santos left the New Democratic Party caucus shortly before the 2007 provincial election after being accused of improperly selling party membership cards (he denied the charge). He campaigned as an independent, and finished last in a field of five candidates. His successor, Flor Marcelino, was a last minute replacement candidate for the NDP.

The Winnipeg Sun reported in 2013 that on March 16, 2005 “Santos was scolded for bringing a paring knife into chamber. …The speaker confiscated the three-inch blade from Santos, who apologized for bringing it into the house.”

There is no doubt that Conrad Santos paved the way for the current crop of Filipino politicians in Manitoba including Dr. Rey Pagtakhan who followed him as the first Filipino to be elected member of Parliament in 1988.

Pagtakhan’s nephew Mike, is a long-serving member of the Winnipeg City council and there are currently two sitting members of the Manitoba legislature – Flor Marcelino and Ted Marcelino, both of the NDP.

Other Filipino politicians served in various positions in school boards putting Manitoba firmly in the leading position in the country as having the most number of politicians in office.

Santos  is survived by one daughter, two sons and two daughters-in-law, Evelyn Santos, Conrad and Leslie Santos, Rob and Kim Santos, and their families; four grandchildren, Kristen and Matt, Ginny and Josie. Affectionately known as ka Rading to his family, he is also survived by his three siblings and three sisters-in-law, Leticia Santos, Rebecca Santos, Ruel and Dina Santos, Narcisa Santos, Luz Santos, and all their families (including his nephew, Paul Santos). Conrado was predeceased by his parents, Federico and Marcelina Santos of Malolos, Bulacan, Philippines; his sister Melita Santos Beltran, his brothers Virgilio Santos and Benjamin Santos, and his wife Emerita Santos, and is survived by their families.