Grappling with anti-Asian racism in Canada


On Aug. 7, 1907, the newly formed Asiatic Exclusion League led thousands of people to Vancouver City Hall to protest Asian immigration to Canada. Holding signs that read “For a White Canada,” the group proceeded to Chinatown, where they damaged Chinese-owned homes and businesses before moving to an area heavily populated by Japanese immigrants.

The violence and destruction continued for two days and was the culmination of both racist policies in the Canadian government, including the Chinese Head Tax in 1885 and anti-Asian hostility among working-class white people stoked by the corporate and political elite.

While many of the policies that contributed to this incident have been erased and apologies have been issued, the pandemic has shown that the hostility is still around a century later.And with the Vancouver Police Department reporting a 717 per cent increase in reported violent anti-Asian hate crimes between 2019-2020, the pandemic, and the recent shooting in Atlanta which killed six women of Asian descent, anti-Asian racism is becoming a bigger part of the larger conversation around systemic racism.

A recent report released by advocacy groups, including the Chinese Canadian National Council, revealed that 643 instances of hate crimes were reported between March 10 and Dec. 31 last year. Of those complaints, 10 per cent involved being coughed or spat on, and 11 per cent involved unwanted touching or physical assault.

Half of these reported incidents took place in public spaces such as parks, streets, and sidewalks, with 20 per cent occurring in restaurants and grocery stores.

In March, there were two instances of this behaviour occurring around Vancouver. On March 27, a woman took out her garbage around 8:00 pm near the University of British Columbia Vancouver campus when she was punched in the head and stomach and called an anti-Asian slur. Two days later, an Instagram video showed a man using racist language and blaming the person shooting the video for the coronavirus — after using similar language towards a coffee shop employee before throwing a coffee on her.

“It’s a really sad situation, what we are seeing,” said Rachna Singh, MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers and the parliamentary secretary for anti-racism. “I’ve heard a lot of stories in the past year. People being spit at, people being assaulted, and how the community organizations are on the front lines dealing with these situations.”

Singh calls the increase “disturbing” and “a matter of concern for all of us.”

“There are multiple factors. The one that we are seeing at this time, it’s because of COVID-19. That is what they attribute it to. But we have seen that whenever there is a crisis — any kind of crisis — those things are in the system,” she says.

“And whenever the crisis starts, those things come out to the forefront.”

“The problem of racism and bias against people who are not white dates back to the beginning of colonization,” says Dr. Michael Ma, a criminology instructor at KPU who specializes in racial politics and crime.

“The language of race and even the imagination of … people not being Caucasian was something that grew out of Western European philosophy and social science. And they tried to, I think, understand why the world was different, in terms of being populated by different types of people. But unfortunately, their answer to that question is: ‘everything that we come across and encounter is inferior to us.’”

Prior to working in KPU’s criminology department, Ma was an anti-racism coordinator in Peterborough, Ontario and worked with the Chinese Canadian National Council’s Toronto chapter, having a knowledge of the subject firsthand.

For people of Asian descent, AAPI Data suggests that 27 per cent of respondents report being the victims of a hate crime, while 30 per cent report receiving poorer service at restaurants and stores compared to other people.

“I think when we hear the words ‘anti-Asian racism,’ most people think that’s people spitting on people on the sidewalk and punching them and pushing old people down,’’ says Ma.

There are more subtle forms of racism. For example, many famous media portrayals repeat stereotypes of Asian-Americans being “model minorities,” socially inept, or weak and submissive love interests.

In 2020, KPU created an anti-racism task force with a mandate, among others, to “create institutional supports for the KPU community for institutional change on racial equity, systemic oppression, and intersectional social justice.”

According to Dr. Asma Sayed, the task force chair, they are “working on developing racial literacy and engaging with the institution holistically.”

She says that current structures in place “need to be dismantled in order to create a diverse, equitable society” and that a strong legal framework and resources are needed to accomplish that.

At the moment, Canada as it currently exists is what we have, according to Ma, another member of KPU’s task force.

“We have a country that is very diverse,” says Ma. “That’s a euphemistic way of saying ‘we have a country where a lot of people are not born in Canada.’ We know there is this notion of bias against people who are not white. That may not be overt bias, but it could be systemic bias or some hidden naturalized bias. For example, if you look at our faculty, in comparison to our student body, you also will see that there are quite a lot of people who are so-called ‘white’ … and much of our student body is not white. So, there’s a disconnect there between the instructors and the students.”

Ma says he believes KPU has been proactive about anti-racism since the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“Ever since Black Lives Matter became an international and global issue, organizations around the world have been trying to wrap their heads around this issue,” he says.

“[The task force], I think, is trying to understand what it can do in relationship to its own mandate about diversity in the curriculum, perhaps diversity in the so-called courses or in the makeup of departments.”

He’s not sure that the mandate of the university itself is able to address issues related to systemic racism “in any substantive way.”

“Our mandate is about [asking] ‘how can we make the university a component or a feature of fighting against racism?’ So that’s what the task force is involved in, and sometimes it gets narrowed down into ‘how can we restructure the way in which the university operates?’” he says.

Ma also notes that many universities have been focused on the equity, diversity, and inclusivity approach, but he does not believe that this can necessarily “solve” the issues as a whole.

“We recommend that people take unconscious bias training, for instance,” he says.

“Sometimes we implement EDI policies. Do those address these issues that we’re talking about? Absolutely. Is it successful? I don’t know. That’s for historians to figure out.”

“In recent years, we have apologized for the wrongs that have happened in history,” says Singh.

“And those are important landmarks. But the remnants of that racism are still there, and they are in the system. So, I think there’s a multi-fold approach that needs to be done.”

Singh says that she is proud to be B.C.’s first parliamentary secretary for anti-racism.

“I think the focus on education is very important, whether it is about Black Lives Matter, or Asian heritage, the wrongs that have happened, that needs to be part of our everyday conversation … and making the space to talk about those issues.”