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A woman cries during a vigil following a demonstration against anti-Asian racism in Montreal on March 21, 2021.

ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

One day in the early 1940s in Victoria, George Ing was standing in a queue, waiting to pick up a social assistance cheque for his family. He was the only Chinese Canadian in the line and he listened as others commented: “Look at that guy, we got to support that family.” No such comments were made toward any other people around, he noticed.

Mr. Ing, who was a preteen at the time, knew it was pure discrimination.

“I accepted and I had no choice,” Mr. Ing, now 88, said in an interview.

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When Mr. Ing was a little older, he immersed himself in sports, a critical way for him to win respect and avoid racism. He did well and said his peers looked up to him. But once, when his mostly white team won an important game, the team planned a swim at Victoria’s Crystal Pool. Chinese Canadians were not permitted.

“You guys go, I’ve got something else to do,” Mr. Ing recalled telling his teammates. They cancelled the outing.

“Unless you face discrimination, you don’t really understand.”

Rising rates of hate directed toward Asian Canadians, apparently a byproduct of the pandemic, and the recent mass shooting in Atlanta, where Asian women were targeted, have prompted activists to plan rallies for this weekend condemning the racism Asian Canadians face.

It has also prompted senior members of the Chinese Canadian community to reflect on how the ugly and overt racism they faced in the early part of the previous century has changed but never disappeared.

Bev Nann still remembers the times when Chinese Canadians were segregated socially, economically and politically. The white lunch restaurant served only white customers, for example. Her close friends graduating from the University of British Columbia were informed they need not apply to Vancouver city hall for a job, so they ended up back in the family tailoring business.

Ms. Nann, who was born in Vancouver in 1934, said at public high school, she could dance only with Chinese students.

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“I do continue to encounter racism in a more subtle way,” she said, noting the negative comments she still hears about mixed marriages and prevalent assumptions that Asians are irresponsible drivers.

Compared with the overt racial bias Mr. Ing and Ms. Nann experienced in the past, retired pathologist Doo Ho Shin said he has mostly experienced racist “undertones” over the decades since he moved to Canada from South Korea in 1968.

He clearly recalls a conversation with an employee at a pharmacy in Toronto many years ago when the employee immediately assumed Dr. Shin was a cleaner there. Another time, a passerby presumed Dr. Shin was a cook.

But last October, he said the subtle racism became more hostile and direct when he started hearing “go-back-to-your-home-country” comments.

“I was really surprised. What can I say?” Dr. Shin said, noting he just shrugged it off.

“I realized the reality is still here,” he said. “They assumed I’m an immigrant, a parasite of the society, so therefore they should just go home. That kind of stereotype is still here.”

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Canada has had a surge in anti-Asian racist attacks during the pandemic.

Vancouver Police Department reported last month that anti-Asian hate-crime incidents rose by 717 per cent to 98 in 2020 from 12 in 2019.

Ottawa police announced in mid-March that since the start of the pandemic, the proportion of racialized members of the community who have experienced an increase in harassment or attacks based on their race, ethnicity or skin colour has increased compared with the rest of the population. They said the largest increase is seen among Asian Canadians. In 2020, the number of reported incidents targeting people of Asian descent increased to 14 from two in 2019.

Serena Mah, an organizer of an Edmonton protest rally on Saturday, said the event aims to bring community together to “grieve, to talk, to support each other and lift each other.”

On Sunday, protests have also been set up in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.

Maryka Omatsu, a retired judge and co-author of Challenging Racist “British Columbia” 150 Years and Counting, said the stark increase of anti-Asian racism in B.C. has had long and deep roots. “Most are microaggressions and racist slurs for which there is no remedy,” she said.

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Ms. Omatsu said there were more than 175 anti-Asian laws from 1895 to 1950, and today the systemic biases are ingrained in our institutions. “Canadians have to face that racism has to be eradicated from the source,” she said.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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