From Government Exclusion to Hate Crimes: The Origins and Resurgence of Anti-Asian Racism

By: Sabrina Gilmour

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a disturbing surge in anti-Asian hate crimes and racism in Canada. According to a report by the Chinese Canadian National Council – Toronto Chapter (CCNC),1150 cases of racist attacks were reported across Canada between March 2020 and February 2021. Victims have experienced verbal harassment and physical assaults, such as being coughed on or spat at in public spaces. Until the government takes swift action to combat the racist and xenophobic attacks against Asians across Canada, these violent incidents will continue to increase.

Although anti-Asian hate has become increasingly visible, its presence in Canada is nothing new to Asian residents. The Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 denied Chinese Canadians the right to vote in federal elections, which was extended to other Asian races through the Dominion Elections Act of 1920. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, kept Chinese immigrants from entering Canada for 24 years. In addition, 90 percent of the Japanese Canadian population was held in internment camps during the Second World War. The Canadian Government used the War Measures Act as a means to justify the imprisonment of these residents. There are many more examples of the government leading and condoning the exclusion of Asians in Canada.

Since then, Canada has come a long way and now celebrates 50 years of multiculturalism as a national policy and embraces the narrative of diversity and inclusion as a national identity. However, the pandemic has exposed and magnified the ignorance and hatred people have had towards Asian communities, which have lingered under the surface for years.

Despite Toronto’s reputation as a diverse and welcoming city, racism and discrimination are still present. According to Project1907, Toronto has the second-highest rate of cases for anti-Asian hate crimes. Moreover, while Vancouver is often known as the “most Asian City” in Canada, it has now been labelled the “anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America. A year-end report presented to the Vancouver Police Board shows that there has been a 717 percent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes from 2019 to 2020. The Ottawa Police Service also reported that hate crimes against East Asian and Southeast Asian people were up 600 percent from 2019. In an overall comparison to the United States, Canada has a higher number of reported anti-Asian hate crime incidents per Asian capita.

Since the pandemic began, Asians have been the targets of hate speech. According to the CCNC, verbal harassment has been the most common type of attack toward Asians, accounting for 73% of total cases. In the report, the mother of one victim outlined, “While my daughter was playing in the open green area in the complex property, a few girls approached her and said, ‘Why are you Chinese people spreading the COVID-19 [virus] all over the world? It’s so annoying, and all of the things are your fault!’”

Asians have been especially subject to this kind of derogatory language online. According to a study done by L1ght, there has been a 900 percent increase in hate speech towards China and Chinese people. The same study found that there has also been a 200 percent increase in traffic to hate sites and a surge in specific posts against Asians. Unfortunately, this kind of hate speech has been fueled by the rhetoric coming from world leaders. According to researchers at the University of California, Donald Trump’s first tweet that used the term “China Virus” led to a surge in anti-Asian hashtags on Twitter. Other terms used by officials, such as “Kung flu” and the “Wuhan Virus,” have contributed to the harmful false connection between the virus and people of Asian descent.

In 2019, the Government of Canada introduced the federal Anti-Racism Strategy, which is “committed to building a foundation for change by removing barriers and promoting a country where every person is able to fully participate and have an equal opportunity to succeed.” While this is a step forward, more must be done given the rise in violence and discrimination linked to COVID-19 against Asians. Asian Canadians, such as Avvy Go, executive director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto, have pointed out that the strategy has failed to specifically mention anti-Asian racism, which is a serious flaw in the foundational policy document. Thus, the government should begin with specifically mentioning anti-Asian racism in the federal Anti-Racism Strategy.

Additionally, Canada should provide more funding and develop a more comprehensive plan to target anti-Asian hate crimes and racism more directly. Provincial governments should establish hate crime hotlines, similar to the one in British Columbia. This would make it easier for victims to report incidents while allowing the government to monitor discrimination against Asians across the country. Canada must also work with major media outlets to avoid the spread of online misinformation and hate speech. Finally, the government should hold public education campaigns focused on anti-racism and highlight the unique experiences of Asian Canadians and their contributions to Canada.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed decades of xenophobia and bigotry towards Asian communities that is rooted in Canada’s history. Without swift action from the government, these recent trends could turn into higher and more deadly accounts of anti-Asian hate crimes and racism in the country.

Sabrina Gilmour is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Her interests include international development, housing affordability, and urban and social policy. She is currently interning at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat with the Strategic Policy Team. Sabrina holds a Specialized Honours Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from York University.

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