On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I remember making a frantic call to Dudley Herschbach, a former chemistry professor at Harvard, to make sure no one was on the Boston-based flight that crashed into the World Trade Center. The next day, he called me back to reassure me that everyone was safe. The relief of his words, however, was punctuated by his worry: that hate was about to be unleashed against Muslims, Arabs and people who looked Middle Eastern. I didn’t quite appreciate the gravity of his words – that is, until they were borne out.
The onset of the coronavirus pandemic is unfortunately reminiscent of 9/11 – except that it is now Asian-Canadians (and in particular, Chinese-Canadians) who have become prime targets of xenophobia. There has already been an uptick in the number of hate crimes. Many in the Asian-Canadian community feel the spectre of racism while out in public.
I have spent almost two decades fighting xenophobia directed against Muslim communities in Canada, from hate crimes to discriminatory employment practices to state-sanctioned rendition policies. I was the chair of a grassroots advocacy group that worked with civil institutions – such as the media, human-rights commissions, school boards and the courts – to advocate that Canadian Muslims be treated fairly in accordance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. What I’ve learned might be useful for Asian-Canadian advocacy organizations needing to push back on current and future discrimination.
Such organizations should document incidents, no matter how small, because such data is vital for public policy initiatives. As such, there should be ample publicity in community publications about what constitutes an incident, and where individuals can report this information. Currently, the Chinese Canadian National Council has an online reporting form, and there should be open lines of communication with police forces to ensure that any incidents are promptly investigated.
These advocacy organizations should also educate community members about their basic rights as provided by the Charter. For example, no one should face discrimination in housing, education or employment simply due to their cultural heritage or ethnicity. Individuals have the right to be treated fairly at border crossings. Our organization developed a popular pocket “Know Your Rights” guide that is still highly useful today.
With the possibility of a “Cold War" with China, Canadian security agencies might begin interviewing Chinese-Canadians. These interviews can be traumatic, inducing fear. Community members should be educated about their rights prior to such interviews, along with their duty to speak truthfully. Recourse to legal assistance will be necessary. In addition, there should be lines of communication open between advocacy organizations and CSIS.
An important component is the education system. Efforts should be under way to contact school boards to ensure that once students return to the classroom, there will be heightened vigilance of anti-Asian discrimination. In the long-term, Asian Heritage Month in May can be used to educate students about the rich contribution of Asian-Canadians to Canadian society.
All of the above requires human resources and money. As such, members of the business and legal communities need to step up and offer funds and their time. Members of the law profession can provide assistance pro bono, to help community members navigate through the legal system. Many disputes involving discrimination are resolved through human-rights commissions, rather than through the courts. Community members will require assistance to proceed with their complaints.
Chinese-Canadian advocacy organizations should network with anti-discrimination organizations that have a wealth of expertise. Examples of national organizations include the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, the National Council of Canadian Muslims and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. A common goal should be the declaration of Jan. 29, the day of the Quebec City mosque massacre, as a National Day of Action against Hate.
However, not all of the burden should be placed on the Asian-Canadian community. Every one of us has a role to play to ensure that ours is a safe, inclusive society. Civic leaders have an added responsibility to speak forcefully in favour of inclusion, and any politicians who scapegoat Asian-Canadians for political gain must be denounced unequivocally.
Finally, the coming period will be another crucible for the continuing project of forging our Canadian identity. Post-9/11, Canadian Muslims asked themselves what it meant to be Muslim and Canadian. Without hesitation, we denounced terrorism repeatedly, along with the ghastly practice of “honour killing.” We became more involved in the fabric of Canadian society. We shared our personal stories with the wider public. We developed resilience along the way and gained strength from the loving support of wider society. Our journey is not over, but we extend a hand to our fellow Canadians who are of Asian heritage: we are with you, on yours.
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