MANILA — “My father loved to talk. There was no dead air when he was around.”
This was how Jenelle described her father, Joseph Canlas. But on the morning of May 9 inside the emergency room of a public hospital in Angeles City, Jenelle said she did all the talking.
“I told him all kinds of stories. I didn’t stop just so he would know that we were with him and we were there for him,” Jenelle told Bulatlat in an emotional interview morning of May 10. “He tried to talk back but all he could do was stutter,” she added.
Little did Jenelle know that that would be her last conversation with her father. “I couldn’t find the courage to tell him he was going to be brought to the ICU and that he would be alone until he recovers,” she said.
Canlas, a peasant leader in Central Luzon for more than three decades, breathed his last a few minutes before eight in the morning of May 11 while in detention. He was 59.
Long road to the ICU
Jenelle said their family had a hinch that Canlas was not in good medical condition on Friday afternoon, May 7 when they were allowed to make a phone call. That was the same day the late peasant leader was transferred to a regular cell (Selda 25) from the jail’s isolation area where he stayed for 22 days since April 15.
“He was not his usual self in our phone conversation. He was stuttering which made us suspect that he suffered a stroke,” said Jenelle.
In the early morning of May 8, Jenelle received a text message from an inmate which read: “Your father is not talking. We’re worried about him.” This prompted her and her brother, Joseph Jr, to immediately visit him in jail.
Jenelle said they had to plead to the jail administrators to allow him to use the oxygen tank but not after asking the Canlas siblings to have it replenished. They were not able to see him personally that day but were allowed to make a video call. “He didn’t look normal. We just knew there was something wrong with him,” she recalled.
In a separate interview with the Chief Administrator of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology in Angeles City, Julius Alcaraz, he said they had the jail nurse check Canlas’s vital signs which turned out normal except for the inmate’s unstable oxygen level.
Jenelle said it took more than eight hours before the jail administrators released him from the Angeles City Jail to get proper medical attention.
According to Alcaraz, jail records show it was exactly 8:05 p.m. of May 8 that Canlas was released from prison and brought to the Rafael Lazatin Memorial Medical Center. Since it was a COVID-19 facility, Jenelle said patients were left waiting in tents outside the hospital and her father was no exception.
However, Jenelle said they had to find him another hospital as doctors advised her father to be intubated. It took until 4 a.m. the following day, May 9, before the Canlas siblings were able to transfer their father to the Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital early morning of May 9.
Canlas was suspected to be infected with the coronavirus but, Alcaraz said medical records from JBL regional hospital says he died of acute respiratory failure secondary to community acquired pneumonia. Result of his swab test is not available as of press time.
No budget for swab testing
Alcaraz also confirmed that Canlas’s swab test at the regional hospital was his first after he was arrested March 30 of this year over what human rights groups consider as trumped-up charges.
“We have no budget to have all our inmates undergo swab testing,” Alcaraz admitted. He however said the Angeles jail has two isolation areas, one for incoming inmates where they have to stay for 21 days before they are committed to their cell, and the second for inmates who have been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
This is in line with the memorandum from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) national headquarters dated August 28, 2020 on the preparation for the resumption of commitment of PDL (persons deprived of liberty) to jail facilities, which allows inmates to be detained in their cells with the rest of the jail population even without a negative RT-PCR swab as long as they have a certification that they have been quarantined for 21 days at the lock-up cell and had no manifestation of signs or symptoms related to COVID-19.
Alcaraz lamented that it had been difficult for jail administrators since the start of the pandemic because they have to deal with an influx of inmates every day. In fact, he said that in the Angeles jail facility alone, they have 1,599 inmates as of May 11, 2021, 83 of whom are in the first isolation area while 15, who have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, are in a separate room.
The budget for COVID-19 swab testing comes from the local government, Alcaraz said, and added that this is the reason why not all inmates are required to undergo the swab test. “We cannot blame the LGU, its priority is food for the inmates,” the jail chief administrator said.
Big void to fill-in
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, the largest peasant organization in the country where Canlas was vice chairperson, condemned the death of their leader. In a statement, it said the state’s brutal fascism killed Canlas who was exposed to the virus while in detention.
“His unjust detention led to the swift deterioration of his health condition,” the statement said.
During the launch of the Free Joseph Canlas and Pol Viuya Network last April 24, KMP Chairperson Danilo Ramos gave a glimpse of Canlas’s transformation from an environmentalist to becoming a leader of national magnitude. Ramos said Canlas started as a youth leader in their farming community in Arayat, Pampanga. A graduate of Bachelor of Science Major in Forestry at the Pampanga Agricultural College, Canlas was also a scholar of the Gintung Pakpak Foundation.
Ramos said Canlas served the government for a short time as a member of the now defunct Kabataang Barangay and was an employee at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It was during his stint at the DENR where Canlas witnessed corruption in the implementation of projects. He resigned from his post at the department and built his own advocacy group, Anak Gubat, which led campaigns against illegal treasure hunting in Mount Arayat.
In 1997, Ramos continued, Canlas joined the provincial peasant group Aguman daring Maglalautang Capampangan or AMC and the local formation of the Bagong Alyansang Makayan (BAYAN)Ramos said Canlas was elected as chairperson of AMC and elected again as the chairperson of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson (Alliance of Peasants in Central Luzon), a position he held until his death.
While at the helm, Canlas led campaigns for the emancipation of peasants and farm workers in Central Luzon, the most notable of which were the strike of farmworkers and sugar mill workers in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, the fight against the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport, and the protection of Mt. Abo in Pampanga.
Ramos said Canlas also led campaigns against the Rice Liberalization Law, the Balikatan Exercises held by US forces in ancestral lands, and the intrusion of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
“Even during the pandemic, he led relief efforts in the region despite his medical condition,” Ramos said. “He always prioritized the interest of the masses especially the indigenous peoples in the region.”
Ramos added that Canlas was far from the terrorist the Duterte administration painted him to be.
The human rights alliance Karapatan has recorded the death of nine political prisoners while in detention and two infants who died after being separated from their detained mothers.