When a US President demonizes an ethnic group blaming them for causing a pandemic it can give legitimacy to racism. While south of the border, media has covered some of the worst attacks direct towards people of Asian descent, we are not immune in Canada. Vancouver police have reported a jump in anti-Asian hate crimes from 12 cases in 2019 to 98 cases in 2020. A survey by the Chinese Canadian National Council revealed 1,150 incidents of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, with almost half of those incidents taking place in Jan and Feb of 2021. The incidents are mostly “verbal harassment,” but 11 per cent reported experiencing “physical force, aggression or unwanted physical contact.” People reported being coughed at or spat on and experiencing “vandalism.”
In 2020, Angus Reid found that 43% of surveyed Canadians of Asian descent report feeling threatened or intimidated as a direct result of COVID-19. This is what happens when hate goes unchecked. “Hate and intolerance threaten public safety, violate human rights, and undermine our free and inclusive society.” said Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Right Commission. “No one in Canada should feel unsafe because of who they are, the colour of their skin, or where their ancestors come from.”
While we tend to refer to those of Asian decent as “new Canadians”, the first known settlement was in in 1788 when Chinese migrants established fur trade settlements in the Nuu-chah-nulth territory (now BC). The first major immigration period was when an estimated 15-17,000 workers were brought to Canada as indentured labourers to build the railway through the mountains of Alberta and BC. While the government and businesses were happy to exploit these people for their manual labour, once building was over anti-Asian laws were enacted. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 imposed a head tax of $50, equivalent to almost two months wages. By 1903, it reached $500, an equivalent of $14,800 in todays dollars. Then in 1923, Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act banning almost all Chinese immigration. It was not repealed until 1947. It took until 2006 for the Federal Government to give a formal apology for the racist head tax.
All Asians were denied the right to vote: the Chinese in 1874, Japanese in 1895, and South Asians in 1907. Laws were passed to excluded Asians from many occupations: mining, government employment, and professions such as lawyers. Wage laws allowed employers to hire Asian Canadians for menial jobs or farm labour, and to pay lower rates than Caucasians. Unions in turn accused Asian Canadians of “unfair competition’ and of “stealing jobs and undermining union wages” yet they would not allow them membership.
When in September 1907 a ship from Punjab carrying 901 Sikhs arrived in the port of Vancouver, the racist “Asiatic Exclusion League,” lead a mob of 9,000 smashing windows and destroyed the homes and shops of Asian-Canadians.
In 1942 when Canada declared war on Japan, the first victims of that war were Canadians of Japanese ancestry. 20,881 people, 75 per cent of whom were Canadian citizens, were removed from the coastal regions of BC. Their homes, farms and businesses, personal belongings were all confiscated. They were shipped to “detention camps,” and sent to do road and farm labour. Those that resisted the theft of their belongings were called “Prisoners of War” and sent to POW Camps in Ontario.
The labour movement has sadly perpetuated anti-Asian racism. By not allowing Asians to become members and by supporting anti-immigration and labour laws or denying them the opportunity of operating their own businesses to support their families, unions helped force them into the margins of the workforce. With our own racist history, we cannot point the finger of righteous indignation at others. Our governments, businesses and workers have all promoted racism in Canada.
While we can’t change the past, we can change the future. Unions must stand up against all forms of racism. We must stand up for our sisters and brothers of Asian descent, their families, and those in our community that daily have a fear about how racist attitudes will affect them.