Retirement for some people may feel like freedom from schedules and hectic days but for busy bodies, being idle for too long isn’t an option.
Ely Abecia is the latter. The former president of the Prince Rupert Filipino Canadian Association tried to retire 12 years ago after the Skeena Cellulose Pulp Mill shut down. Soon after he started his own driving school and sometimes puts in 12-hour days.
“When that pulp mill went down in 2001, I was already about 54, not retirement age yet. I waited about two years to make sure that they might come back. I applied for my retirement when I was 56. In that two years, the waiting, that is boring life,” Abecia said.
He doesn’t look his age even after all he’s been through. Abecia is 68-years-old with tight curly hair, an easy laugh, with a face that becomes more animated while he retells stories of his life.
Before immigrating to Prince Rupert in 1977, Abecia grew up in the Maguindanao province of the South Philippines. He cautiously points out that no foreigners are allowed after 57 people were killed there in 2009 — most of them journalists.
His brother had already moved to the North Coast, and once their parents retired he sponsored them to live in Canada. Abecia remained behind as a forester, and as a volunteer in the military.
“When my parents left I was behind fighting with the state and they wanted to take me out,” he said.
At his parents request, Abecia’s brother then sponsored him and he joined his family in Prince Rupert. He wasn’t able to continue as a forester, so he worked as a mechanic at the Shell gas station, which is now the Tim Hortons where we sat with hot tea and coffee as he told me his story.
After Shell, he took a job at the pulp mill, where he worked for approximately 22 years before it closed. But the busy man was forced to slow down after he was in an industrial accident in 1994 when he was left with four broken vertebrae.
“When I retired I said, ‘Who is going to hire an old goat like me?’ I have problems with my back. I talked to my daughter Melanie, ‘I need work that I like to do.’ I decided I think I’d like to teach kids driving,” Abecia said.
At work one day, a woman asked Melanie if she knew of anyone who would be interested in buying a driving school. In 2005, Abecia started his Rainbow Driving School up to now. “It was so boring during that two years, listen this is not me. I am go go go,” he said.
The same time, he became the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a charitable Catholic organization that helps those in need. From 2012 until 2015 he was the president of the Prince Rupert Filipino Canadian Association for the second time after his first stint in 1990.
On Saturday, Sept. 24 he was at the 43rd annual Filipino Night at the Jim Ciccone Civic Centre. Abecia said there are more than 100 members in the local Filipino association.
“We have to preserve our culture. We are performing all the folk dances and everything there just to remind ourselves that we are Filipinos and this is our culture,” he said.
The association was founded in 1974, and Abecia is one of its oldest members. Members participate in Seafest with a float and the popular shish-kebab stand. There is also an annual Filipino picnic for families in the summer and many other events. The association also raises money for their community here and for those back home.
In 2013, when Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines, Abecia said the association collected more than $30,000 and with the government matching their donation they sent $60,000 to help those affected.
Abecia stepped down from his role as president last year to focus on taking care of his wife and his mother. Both are in Acropolis Manor, a long-term care facility. His mother is 102-years-old and one of the oldest in the residence, while his wife is one of the youngest, who has been there since the spring when a stroke left her paralyzed.
At dinner, Abecia visits both of them. He recalled another time when his wife battled ovarian cancer after they were married. She was sent to Vancouver for treatment, and he got the call saying his wife was dying.
She was given three days to live, and once Abecia was by her side he remembered the doctor pronouncing her dead on March 13, 1979 at 11:38 p.m.
“Six hours later she came back,” he said and then described the miracle in great detail. She eventually overcame the cancer, and the couple raised two kids on the North Coast.
Now, as a senior member of the Filipino association, Abecia is trying to pass on the torch to younger generations.
“Most of us are old now. But the young generation right now, they don’t know how we built this association,” he said. “What we’re trying to do now is educate the young ones now, to educate them and tell them the value of being a Filipino. We don’t want the culture to fade away.”