MPs, advocates urge more government action to combat ‘pandemic of anti-Asian racism’

Of note, both in terms of comments by activists and politicians, as well as some encouraging signs of a downward trendline:

Justin Kong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council’s Toronto chapter, doesn’t want focus paid to his own experiences of racism, which he says most racialized people have experienced, instead emphasizing the importance of the country coming together to make things better.

He, along with several Members of Parliament and advocacy groups, have called for more to be done by the federal government to combat anti-Asian racism, in response to the surging number of racist incidents affecting Asians in Canada—and those who look Asian to some—since the start of the pandemic.

A September report from Project 1907, a group which has been tracking incidents, found that more than 600 instances of racism have occurred in Canada since the onset of COVID-19, with a higher number of anti-Asian incidents reported per capita than the United States. Women were impacted the most, reporting 60 per cent of all incidents. The data expanded on the type of harassment, too, with verbal abuse occurring in 65 per cent of incidents, and nearly 30 per cent reporting assault or targeted coughing, spitting, or other physical forms of violence.

A July Statistics Canada report, meanwhile, found that discriminatory incidents were perceived to happen sometimes or often by 26 per cent of Koreans and 25 per cent of Chinese respondents. It also found that 43 per cent of Koreans, and 38 per cent of Filipino people reported feeling unsafe walking home alone at night. Strikingly, in a recent report presented to Vancouver’s police board, the increase in anti-Asian racism was up 717 per cent from the year before, going from 12 reports in 2019 to 98 in 2020.

Some standout incidents that Conservative MP Kenny Chiu (Steveston-Richmond East, B.C.) said he’s noticed in Vancouver include reports of vandalism and even one incident where an elderly gentleman with dementia was attacked.

For Lynn Deutscher Kobayashi, vice-president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians, these types of occurrences relate to the idea of Asians being untrustworthy foreigners no matter how long they’ve been in Canada.

“It’s just this inability of people to see you as Canadian because of the colour of your skin,” she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has condemned racism in the past via news conferences.

Mr. Kong said the main impetus for more recent racism was COVID-19 and the political rhetoric circulating.

“Irresponsible politicians have scapegoated Chinese people as the cause of this virus,” he said.

Liberal MP Han Dong (Don Valley North, Ont.) noted that racism towards the Asian community is historic, and that continued, systemic issues, like around fair employment opportunity, plague the system.

Queenie Choo, CEO of B.C. social service agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S., described systemic racism as issues with policy that ignore privilege and create unfair inequities.

This system, Mr. Kong said, leads to issues like Chinese-Canadians being disproportionately represented under the poverty line, or having difficulties with accessing good housing or good education.

“The racism is systemic racism that puts racialized people in precarious working conditions and life conditions,” he said.

In Mr. Dong’s view, COVID-19 has simply created the setting for racist thinking to come out.

“It’s always been there, but the pandemic has created a perfect [mix] for some of these people to come out pointing fingers at Chinese-Canadians,” he said.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) raised similar historical issues, pointing towards segregation laws and head taxes that existed in the past, which unfairly targeted Chinese- and other Asian-Canadians.

Also contributing to the issue is negative sentiment towards the Chinese government over issues like its crackdowns in Hong Kong and detention of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, with Mr. Dong noting that Canada-China relations have worsened over the last three years.

“I think this will sharpen the sort of racial view on Chinese-Canadians,” he said. “I think the racism against Asian-Canadians is deeper than what’s going on between Canada and China.”

Mixed opinions on level of anti-Asian racism since pandemic start

Mr. Kong said there have been consistent levels of racism since the pandemic started: “Whether or not it’s gotten worse, it’s bad, it’s really bad.”

He was also impressed with how many Chinese organizations and individuals got together as citizens and donated to help their neighbours and their community.

“That’s a real positive out of COVID-19,” he said.

Mr. Chiu echoed these sentiments, and said the trend appears to be going down.

Less satisfied with the status quo, Ms. Choo emphasized that racism will continue if nothing is done about it. While she said she’s glad the government is openly talking about racism, she said she wants to see more sustained efforts over time and continuous vigilant action.

Ms. Kobayashi, meanwhile, expected there to be a new wave of racism as a result of the Capitol Building storming in the United States, with white supremacists and extreme groups emboldened by the attack.

And in Ms. Kwan’s eyes, racism directed at Asian-Canadians has existed for a long time, with COVID-19 giving it a chance to re-emerge “with a vengeance.”

How the government can combat anti-Asian racism

For Mr. Kong, fighting the problem of racism requires the first step of recognizing that racial inequities exist. He said he wasn’t able to offer firm policy suggestions owing to an incoming report on the topic.

In Ms. Choo’s opinion, there should be more concrete legislation around hate crimes.

“Right now, we have no clear definition. What is a hate crime? Is it a hate crime online? Is spitting on people of colour [a hate crime]?” she said.

She further advocated for serious legislation to prosecute offenders in order to send a message to people.

Ms. Choo also said race-based data should be collected in consultations with the affected communities. “If we don’t even know who is targeted, who is affected, and what communities we are talking about, how are we going to take corrective action?”

To treat this “pandemic of anti-Asian racism,” Ms. Kobayashi agreed there should be support for people targeted by hate crimes, and that more funding should be provided for data collection efforts on racism.

In Ms. Kwan’s view, a hate crime unit should be placed in every single police department across the country. Alongside this, she said there should be high-level standards that ensure every single incident is investigated fairly.

“We can talk about we’re doing to get rid of racism and hate, but we need to match those words in action, and to properly resource a hate crime unit at every single department, I would think, is the bare minimum that we should be in,” she said.

Also critical is educating the Canadian public, Ms. Kwan said. Her comments were echoed by Ms. Choo, who said that teaching around historical and contemporary racism should be funded .

Some things that the Trudeau Liberal government has already done include shortlisting a Chinese-born Canadian, Won Alexander Cumyow, for appearance on the $5 bill and acknowledging the role of Chinease railway workers every year, said Mr. Dong.

Other concrete actions taken, according to Diversity and Inclusion Minister Bardish Chagger’s (Waterloo, Ont.) press secretary, Emelyana Titarenko, include the setup of an equity-seeking communities and COVID-19 taskforce, which asked East Asian communities about the impact of the virus, and funding for more than 85 different anti-racism projects, worth $15-million.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux (Winnipeg North, Man.) said Parliamentarians should call out racism whenever they can and said the government acts by providing grants to “all sorts of non-profits.”

Ms. Titarenko also noted that a multicultural, open, and inclusive society is always “a work in progress. It demands our effort, our attention and our care.”

Mr. Chiu, who has experienced racism himself, said it made him question whether he belonged in Canadian society when he was pointed and yelled at.

But he said he doesn’t think that the government is the only group with a part to play in fighting racism.

“In Richmond, for example, our community is already diverse and multicultural … my younger daughter’s best friend is a hijab-donning Muslim girl. They don’t see each other as different places, they see each other as friends, so I don’t know if the government can actually do anything to do that. It’s up to us as a society.”