Preston Lim is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School. He previously represented Canada as a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University, where he received a Master’s in Global Affairs.
On Tuesday evening, a man shot and killed eight people – including six Asian women – at three massage parlours in the Atlanta area. The rampage is but the latest manifestation of a rising tide of anti-Asian hate. Just weeks ago, for example, two men attacked Denny Kim – a U.S. Air Force veteran – on a sidewalk in Los Angeles’s Koreatown; there have also been a number of reports of elderly Asian Americans being assaulted in the San Francisco Bay Area in recent months. The problem is serious enough that the U.S. Congress is now holding historic hearings on discrimination against Asian Americans.
Many Canadians like to find comfort in the belief that they are less racist than Americans. After all, is this not the country of thriving multiculturalism? Yet history demonstrates that anti-Asian hate is as old as Canada itself, and is likely to persist into the future.
The decades following Confederation represented the heyday of institutionalized racism. After thousands of Chinese immigrants helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway – with at least 600 labourers giving their lives in the process – Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885, which imposed a head tax. Even that proved insufficient to abate Canadian fears, however; in response to continued domestic pressure, Parliament virtually banned Chinese immigration in 1923. And perhaps the most infamous example of officially sanctioned racism occurred during the Second World War, when the federal government forcibly relocated about 21,000 Japanese Canadians – and required them to pay for the costs of their own internment. (The Canadian government officially issued an apology and compensation for Japanese internment in 1988, and for the head tax in 2006.)
The global spread of COVID-19, first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has led to a resurgence of this state-inspired racism. One need only look at the rhetoric of figures such as former U.S. president Donald Trump, whose repeated use of the term “China virus” has inspired a documented increase in anti-Asian Twitter content. And here in Canada, anti-Asian hate incidents have surged; according to Fight COVID Racism, there have been more than 950 reported incidents across Canada over the course of the pandemic. And according to the Vancouver Police Department, anti-Asian hate crimes in the city – which have included graphic acts of violence – have shot up by 717 per cent between 2019 and 2020.
And this current wave of racism threatens to outlast the pandemic. Geopolitical conflict, after all, rarely promotes racial understanding; just look to the way that governments’ “war on terror” resulted in Muslims enduring slights and physical attacks no matter where they lived. As Western countries confront the Chinese Communist Party for a range of human rights abuses, political leaders must differentiate between the actions of Beijing and the people who have immigrated to Canada and who contribute vitally to our cultural mosaic. If we are not careful, the coming years could likewise see the state-inspired normalization of anti-Asian hate.
For our own part, Asian Canadians have not historically been outspoken or well-mobilized or organized in our advocacy, especially compared to Indigenous people and Black Canadians. That should change, too.
At least in their rhetoric, Canadian leaders appear committed to protecting and championing ethnic diversity. After the killings in Atlanta, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the “ignorant, violent, and discriminatory behaviour has no place in Canada – or anywhere in the world.” Similarly, B.C. Premier John Horgan proclaimed that “we have seen hate here in our province, and we must all stand against it – wherever and whenever it occurs.”
But these words are meaningless without action and Canadians must press for substantive anti-racism policies from their leaders. To take a page from the United States, the House of Commons should have one of its sub-committees – either the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights or the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage – conduct a study on the national rise of anti-Asian racism and recommend potential legislative solutions. On the provincial level, education ministries should review curriculums, to ensure that young Canadians are learning about the history and legacy of anti-Asian discrimination. Municipal, provincial and federal authorities should ensure that police forces across the country, which play the primary role in curtailing hate crimes, benefit from anti-racism training.
A government campaign against racism, however, is unlikely to bear fruit without public buy-in. All of us have a part to play in protecting the health and diversity of Canadian democracy.
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