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In January 2020, the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC-SJ) organized a press conference in Toronto to stem the tide of coronavirus-related racism and xenophobia that was threatening to harm Chinese Canadians again. It felt like déjà vu for many in the community as, nearly two decades earlier, in 2003, the SARS outbreak fuelled hate crimes targeting people of East Asian descent.

Toronto mayor John Tory and the city’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, attended the high-profile presser. Their presence boosted media and public attention on this issue for a time. But Amy Go, president of the CCNC-SJ, said the organization noticed a dip in interest in its activities starting last May, when the police killing of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man in Minneapolis, captured headlines worldwide. The CCNC-SJ did not want to compete with the Black Lives Matter movement for media attention—coverage of racism tends to focus on one community at a time—and it soon became clear to Go that coverage of anti-Asian racism would take a back seat.

Although people who looked East Asian were still being attacked, Go said in an interview last July, “we are no longer the flavour of the month.” Yet the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, should not be seen as distracting from efforts to combat anti-Asian racism. “We do not want to see [ourselves] as competitors with other racialized groups for attention . . . . In fact, we see ourselves working in solidarity and we are arguing the same thing.”

Between March 10, 2020, and February 28, 2021, there were 1,150 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate-motivated attacks across Canada, according to live data from Elimin8Hate.org and Fight COVID Racism, a platform dedicated to tracking and reporting anti-Asian racism across the country. A July 2020 report from Statistics Canada also noted that “visible minorities” perceived more frequent race-based harassment or attacks than the rest of the population and that these incidents had increased since the start of COVID-19; this was particularly the case among survey participants of Korean, Chinese, or Filipino descent. In late March 2021, York Regional Police arrested a man from Markham, Ontario, who they believe is connected to a string of “hate-motivated” assaults from earlier this year, all of his alleged victims having been of East Asian descent.

But, until eight people, including six women of East Asian descent, were killed in the Atlanta spa shootings this past March, Go’s attempts to engage the media about anti-Asian racism largely went ignored. The whiteness of Canadian news outlets is a major reason this issue was sidelined, she said, adding that staff there seem to prioritize their own perceptions over discrimination faced by communities of colour.

“No mention of anti-Asian racism, and this is in the middle of the pandemic! I’m not saying that we are worse off than others—no. But how can you not acknowledge that there is anti-Asian racism?” Go said, laughing incredulously.

Another, more widespread reason is that, for too long, Canadians have taken their cues from American activists, media, and other public figures on how to talk about racism in this country. This means that, even as many Canadians have engaged in more discussions around racism over the past year, many are likely informed by US statistics, US history, and how that history has shaped US demographics today—often falsely assuming that the same facts map onto the Canadian experience. Until we invest in understanding Canada’s unique issues with systemic racism, we won’t be able to come up with effective solutions to combat it.

In September 2019, the morning after news broke that prime minister Justin Trudeau had worn brownface at a 2001 “Arabian Nights”–themed party, I walked into the journalism class I was then teaching to find an intense discussion already underway.

Most of my students, a group of Canadians in their early to mid-twenties, were tentative but honest when describing how they felt about the photo. One said that, while Trudeau’s brownface wasn’t great, it wasn’t as egregious as Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s alleged appearance in a racist yearbook photo, which shows a man wearing blackface alongside another man in a white Ku Klux Klan hood. Another didn’t know what to think, claiming that he could easily recount the history of systemic racism in America but would be hard-pressed to tell me anything about Canada’s history of racism. Others were similarly perplexed and stressed: they were unsure of how to feel about this very Canadian story dominating global headlines.

Having covered equity-focused issues in both the US and Canada, I wasn’t surprised by my students’ reactions. That an American publication broke the brownface story before a Canadian one did wasn’t surprising either. The historical reluctance to discuss race and how it has shaped our country has repeatedly left the public and institutions ill-equipped to confront racial inequity head-on.

“Our discussion of race in Canada is totally inadequate,” says Carl James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community, and Diaspora at Toronto’s York University. When forced to acknowledge anti-Black racism, for instance, many Canadians tend to fall back on the tired argument, he says, that it “‘only happens in the US. After all, racialized Black people came to Canada to get away from slavery in the US.’”

Despite our shared histories, the US and Canada are still different countries with different demographics and, as a result, very different ways of grappling with race: we tend to sweep it under the rug whereas Americans like to confront it head-on, out in the open. According to the US Census Bureau, 42.1 percent of Americans self-identified as people of colour in 2019. Far fewer Canadians—22.3 percent—self-identified as visible minorities in the latest 2016 census. When fewer voices are speaking up about race-related issues, these issues can be more easily dismissed as the grievances of a small group of Canadians. But, to James, the numbers offer only a partial explanation. The bigger barrier to talking about race in Canada, he says, is that many Canadians insist race doesn’t matter.

We tend to conflate race with ethnicity and culture. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act, introduced in 1971, promoted the idea that newcomers should be able to not only keep but celebrate their cultures. This lens of multiculturalism has bolstered a false sense of so-called colour blindness, suggesting that our society transcends racial differences. Instead, says James, we simply fail to address race at all. “The idea of talking about race is seen as racist, and we do not want to be seen as racist.”

This resistance to talking about racism has a silencing effect. Because it’s difficult to draw serious media attention to incidents and patterns of racism in Canada, Go believes that communities of colour sometimes feel it’s ineffective to speak out about discrimination against more than one community at the same time. This is compounded by the problematic notion of a “hierarchy of oppression” in which the lives and experiences of certain “victims” are privileged over those of others; this, in turn, causes lateral violence between communities of colour, which is displaced violence directed against one’s peers rather than one’s oppressors.

Sometimes this manifests on social media as the “What about us?” argument, when tensions arise between those who try to draw attention to their own communities of colour while public focus is on a different community and those who say that these attempts are counterproductive because they pit underrepresented communities against one another.

Examples of lateral violence are common on social media, in both Canada and the US, where some individuals who identify as being part of a community of colour have discriminated against and made broad generalizations about other communities of colour. TikTok influencer Laysie Brandy criticizes this kind of infighting in a video she posted on March 19, shortly after the Atlanta spa shootings. “Black people, I don’t know why some of you are going out of your way to mention incidents where some Asian store owners mistreat Black people as if it justifies them being murdered. Literally hate-crimed,” she says. “You sound stupid.”

Asian Canadians in particular face a relatively high burden of proof for acts of discrimination against them due to what’s known as the “model minority” myth: the false notion that Asians are generally doing better than other communities of colour, so they shouldn’t complain about being discriminated against.

According to Enakshi Dua, a gender studies professor who specializes in critical race theory at York University, this stereotype is an example of why it’s important to avoid conflating race relations and dynamics in the US with those in Canada.

“The model minority concept really came out of the US and the Asian American experience in the US,” she says. White-led media and government institutions in the US, she adds, have historically and successfully weaponized it to exacerbate a racial wedge between Asian Americans and Black Americans.

For example, political commentator Andrew Sullivan argued in a 2017 New York Magazine piece that Asian Americans are a shining example of a community of colour that overcame racial discrimination. “Today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated and successful ethnic groups in America,” he writes. “What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn’t be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?”

Such commentary implies, among other things, that if one community of colour can prosper, there should be no excuse for others to struggle. That notion is not only severely problematic; in Canada, the underlying assumption that Asian immigrant communities are more successful and less marginalized than others belies a more nuanced reality.

“We constantly hear about how South Asian Canadians and Asian Canadians are upwardly mobile, affluent, part of corporations,” says Dua. While there are notable successes among Asian Canadians, she says, the model minority narrative also ignores the fact that much of the essential work in Canadian society—for example, factory workers and personal support workers at nursing homes risking their lives during COVID-19—is done by people from these very communities.

Indeed, research shows that Chinese Canadian and South Asian Canadian migrants have high rates of poverty in Canada, according to Dua. “That data doesn’t support that image that is put forward by the model minority, that all brown folks are upwardly mobile,” she says. “It’s much more complicated.”

A 2012 report called A Snapshot of Racialized Poverty in Canada, released by the now defunct National Council of Welfare, confirms that Canadians of East and Southeast Asian descent—Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, etc.—were the most frequently cited ethnic group living in poverty, at 40 percent. More specifically, 24 percent of people of colour living in poverty identified as being of Chinese descent while 20 percent and 18 percent identified as being of South Asian descent and Black, respectively. This dispels the notion that Asians in Canada are exclusively privileged and exist near the top of a racial hierarchy.

The model minority myth also erases the heterogeneity of Asian communities, which cover a broad swath of groups ranging from Japanese to Cambodians to Indians. These distinct communities have different migration patterns, internal income gaps, and other factors that shape their immigration experiences in various ways.

Dua cites recent immigrants from the Philippines as an example. People who migrated from the Philippines in the ’70s and ’80s were primarily women employed as domestic workers, she explains. “That history of migration”—which required many women to leave behind their own children in the Philippines to care for their employers’ children in Canada—“is a very different history than someone who comes out of med school.”

Much in the same way that the model minority myth flattens the heterogeneity of Asian communities, government statistics flatten the differences between communities of colour. They also tend to present “white” or “Caucasian” as the neutral, dominant race in Canada. Until very recently, there was no white variable on the Canadian census, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, points out. “I have to guess the white population by subtracting the Indigenous population from the not-visible-minority population as reported in the census.” he says. “How asinine is that?”

There is partial progress on this front: Statistics Canada is looking into phasing out the use of the term “visible minorities,” which many, including Owusu-Bempah, say risks conflating different communities of colour.

More broadly, however, the lack of available race-related data makes it difficult to track how racism manifests here. The census, one of the only vehicles through which data on ethnicity and race are systematically collected in Canada, is vulnerable to changing government policies: in 2010, then prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government axed the mandatory long-form census, replacing it with a voluntary National Household Survey. (The long-form census was restored in 2016.) In contrast, the US gathers race-based data across different institutions, which allows for more nuanced analysis. Accurate data can also help inform policy decisions. Case in point: it is generally known that COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of colour, and disaggregating data would help policy makers determine how best to address the unique pandemic-related challenges facing each community. In a November 2020 article for the Royal Society of Canada, Wellesley Institute CEO Kwame McKenzie wrote that our lack of race-specific data means we can’t identify disparities in rates of illness, how effective our pandemic strategies have been for specific communities, or whether those strategies are closing or widening socioeconomic gaps.

Owusu-Bempah suggests that the Canadian government’s resistance to collecting race-based data has been partly due to a desire to create a positive image of Canada as an accepting, multicultural, immigrant-receiving nation. It’s yet another way, he adds, to distance ourselves from the American experience of race.

Elevating the quality of discourse is crucial to dismantling systemic racism, says Go, because a population that’s well-versed on race-related issues in an intersectional way will make it easier for policy makers to address those issues.

In 2019, the federal government introduced a national antiracism strategy coordinated by the Department of Heritage, which has since created the Anti-Racism Secretariat and invested in education and public awareness initiatives to combat racism. But there is nothing in the strategy that speaks specifically to anti-Asian racism. During Asian Heritage Month, in May, the CCNC-SJ called on the government to promote better public understanding of the systemic racism confronting Asian Canadians rather than simply celebrating Asian cultures. It also prompted StatCan to release discrimination-related and other relevant data about Asian Canadians, similar to a report that was released about Black Canadians during Black History Month this year, so that more attention can be drawn to combating anti-Asian racism. Go adds that better public education may also encourage acceptance of migrant workers and undocumented immigrants as permanent residents in Canada by humanizing these groups to the broader public.

Dua is optimistic about the future of racial discourse. She believes we are now in a moment when we’re able to have more complex conversations rooted in a Canadian context. Discussions have historically focused on racism committed by white people against communities of colour, she says, but we can start looking at racism between different communities of colour as well as the long histories of solidarity between them. While such conversations may be uncomfortable, according to Dua, they can lead to less tension, greater mutual understanding, and ultimately, collaborative solutions that effectively combat systemic racism. And, most importantly, they can do so in a way that makes sense for Canada.

Anita Li
Anita Li is a journalism consultant and instructor who specializes in editorial and business innovation in media. She is the author of The Other Wave, a newsletter about challenging the status quo in Canadian journalism.
Dorothy Leung
Dorothy is an illustrator based in the suburbs near Toronto. She studied architecture at the University of Waterloo and illustration at Sheridan College.

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