As published in Toronto Star on Saturday, May 2, 2020
Contributor Mary Ng
Photo Credit: COLE BURSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS
There’s a memory that sticks out in my mind of when I was a young new immigrant in Canada.
I was seven. We had just arrived from Hong Kong. My parents, who didn’t speak any English at the time, brought us to a new home. It was a little bungalow on a neat tree-lined street. It didn’t look anything like our home in Hong Kong and I didn’t look anything like our new neighbours. I remember staring out the window at the sisters who lived next door and knowing that things would be different here. That I would be different here.
And things were different. Everything was different. Like so many children who land on foreign soil, the learning curve was steep.
As I entered my first classrooms in this new country, I had another revelation. Everyone was different. My multicultural classrooms didn’t resemble my homogenous class in Hong Kong. My friends had their family roots in Jamaica and Greece and India. We all ate from our North American Barbie lunch boxes, but those boxes were filled with the scents and recipes from our home countries.
When I look back, these classrooms reflected the best of what Canada can and should be. And while not everyone’s reality, my experience as a young student was that our differences were valued, and I came to feel strongly that I could celebrate both my Chinese heritage and my Canadian identity.
While our track record is not perfect, Canada has so much to be proud of. We work hard as a country and as Canadians to build a welcoming place for people from around the world who choose to call this place home.
But the current COVID-19 crisis reminds us that we are far from immune to racism and hate. As we mark the beginning of Asian Heritage Month – a time to recognize the accomplishments and contributions of Asian Canadians to our country’s culture and history – many of us do so with trepidation.
COVID-19 has brought a health and economic crisis of epic proportions. But it’s also unveiled something else – an insidious and underlying current of racism that cannot go unchecked.
Last week, an alarming study was released that revealed 14 per cent of Canadians believed that it was possible that all Chinese or Asian people carry COVID-19. It also showed that one in five Canadians do not think it’s safe to sit next to a Chinese Canadian person on the bus.
These stats are abhorrent. But they’re not unexpected.
Cities have seen an increase in hate crimes in recent weeks. Every day, more stories emerge about Asian Canadians targeted by racist slurs, harassment, and even violence in their own communities.
Recently, a young Chinese-Canadian professional has stopped going to their downtown grocer after far too many negative incidents. Instead, they make the trek to Chinese grocery stores in Markham to avoid unwelcoming glares.
In a Vancouver convenience store last month, a man hurled racist remarks related to COVID-19 at a 92-year-old man of Asian descent before attacking him and shoving him to the ground.
The people facing this hate-filled discrimination are our neighbours. They are our grandparents, doctors, nurses, business people, artists, teachers, and students who contribute to our society as we know it.
We’ve seen racism in news stories, we’ve seen it in our communities, and we’ve unfortunately seen it from a member of Parliament who has resorted to racist attacks against Canada’s top doctor, the formidable Dr. Theresa Tam.
This intolerant behaviour, especially from people who hold public office, gives unwarranted licence to others to do the same. It undermines everything we are working towards as a country and everything that is good about being a multicultural society – one filled with diverse people and cultures from around the world.
These are not new experiences for many Asian Canadians, but there is no question that COVID-19 has been used as a scapegoat and a poor excuse for racist behaviour against people of Asian descent in Canada and around the world.
A vaccine or medicine to treat the virus will take time.
But we can take action today by denouncing racism and discrimination in our own communities. In our collective frustration and fear about this pandemic and its consequences, we must all resist the urge to place blame where the blame should not be placed and to demonize people because of their race or heritage.
If we fail to speak up, the impacts of COVID-19 will extend beyond the health and economic future of our country.
For generations, millions of Asian Canadians have chosen to build their lives in Canada. Many of us did so because Canada is seen as the country that welcomed and celebrated the diversity and unique contributions of all of its citizens, no matter where you were born.
This is the promise of Canada.
We must defend the people who chose this country as their home, and we must always fight fiercely for the values of acceptance and compassion that distinguish us as Canadians.