Why does anti-Asian hate exist in Canada? Decades of 'scapegoating, blaming’ has built racism into ’structure of society’, expert says

·5 min read

When Robert Aaron Long shot and killed six Asian-American women during his rampage in Atlanta, Georgia, it was the worst nightmare of Asians coming to light after a year filled with hate. The shooter targeted massage parlours, ones where mostly Asian women worked, allegedly for his sex addiction, but the attack is in line with a hate attack as Asians in North America have received an inordinate amount of targeted attacks due to the pandemic.

“This is the latest spectacular moment of violence,” said Henry Yu, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia.

A recently released report by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter amalgamated racist attacks through Elimin8hate and Fight COVID Racism found that there were more than 1,150 cases of racist attacks from Mar. 10, 2020 onwards.

“The 800% increase in hate crimes is a massive undercount, there are many of us who know anecdotally from friends they are not reporting incidents,” said Yu.

The racism is not just limited or a result of the COVID-19 pandemic believed to have started in Wuhan, China, but because powerful people like former U.S. President Donald Trump using phrases like the “China Virus”. Anti-Asian sentiments are not new, according to Yu, but the reason we’re hearing about them more is due to the comfortability people have when powerful voices amplify hate.

“We try to somehow make sense of the rise of anti-Asian violence by the events of the day, but throughout history we have a structure of racism that has been built into society,” he said.

A history of Anti-Asian racism in Canada

It starts in British Columbia when Chinese-Canadians who had immigrated to the province in large numbers to work as labourers had their rights to vote in the provincial election stripped away in 1872. From there, the same rule was applied to Japanese in 1895, and it was the start of discriminatory practices towards a burgeoning minority group.

In 1885, parliament passed what is known as the Chinese Head Tax, a tax Chinese immigrants would need to pay after the completion of the Canadian-Pacific Railway, which they helped build. In 1897, both Chinese and Japanese were banned from working in B.C.’s metal mining industry, and a year later, they were prevented from working in public works departments. Even in the midst of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the last comparable pandemic to COVID-19, Asian-Canadians could not access ‘white’ hospitals in Montreal.

“There's this commonality with a long history, not just the United States, but also in Canada racial scapegoating, of blaming Chinese or blaming Asians for societal issues,” he said.Henry Yu, Associate Professor of History

The limitations didn’t just occur in workplaces, but were reflected in immigration numbers as well. In 1908 the Hayashi-Lemieux Gentleman’s agreement limited the number of Japanese men from entering the country to 400, and later reduced it to 150. 

An illustration from the Canadian Illustrated News, entitled The Heathen Chinese in British Columbia. It depicts Amor de Cosmos forcing a Chinese immigrant to leave British Columbia because he refuses to assimilate. 26 April 1879.
(courtesy Library and Archives Canada/00269)
An illustration from the Canadian Illustrated News, entitled The Heathen Chinese in British Columbia. It depicts Amor de Cosmos forcing a Chinese immigrant to leave British Columbia because he refuses to assimilate. 26 April 1879. (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/00269)

A year after B.C. decided to segregate Chinese students in 1922 into different schools, the Chinese exclusion act was enacted which banned people emigrating to Canada (minus a few exclusions) until 1947. These anti-Asian practices to limit the entry of people from that part of the continent while continuing to keep borders open for countries with majority caucasian populations is one that still exists today, according to Yu.

“If you think of Canada —not just its history, but it's present — there is still a pervasive sense of belonging for migrants who came from Europe that was built around white supremacy,” he said.

During the Chinese immigration ban, in the 1940s, Japanese-Canadians were kept in internment camps. This act of keeping people who had been born and raised in Canada in camps set a dangerous precedent, according to Yu, that even if you’re living here, you are never really truly a Canadian.

“It's actually about the legacy of that past that we still live within and that idea of belonging is one we still struggle with,” he said.

While some people will want to throw dirt on the past and think it’s bygones, Yu doesn’t agree with that sentiment. Instead he insists that the past has shaped Canada into the country it is, and its behaviour towards BIPOC people is still existent in current times.

“I don't study the past as if the past is dead and gone, we are shaped by our past that is present,” said Yu.

While history speaks for itself, Canada’s present actions towards Asian-Canadians is nothing to gloat about either.

In British Columbia, a foreign buyers tax was enacted to limit the number of Chinese buyers flooding the real estate market and skyrocketing prices. Derek Sloan, a sitting Member of Parliament and former candidate to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada attacked Canada’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Theresa Tam for working with the Chinese because of her background. 

At times, different politicians have attacked China for stealing jobs, rather than the manufacturers who chose to move their operations to the country. All of this sentiment often builds according to Yu, and allows for Asians to be easily targeted for simply being themselves.

“Racism is about not really caring about individual people and dehumanizing a set of people who you blame or scapegoat for problems bothering you,” said Yu.

In light of the attacks against Asians increasing, Yu thinks there is a way forward, but it comes with accepting the past and understanding there are barriers to break down.

"There is great pain within Asians of what is happening. We can work to reconcile this treatment, but it begins with Canadians wanting to make right and supporting Asians," he said.