MONTREAL — At the start of the pandemic, Kyungseo Min alerted a journalist to the wave of anti-Asian hostility she experienced and observed. But without concrete data, she was told her story wasn’t newsworthy.
At the time, Montreal police claimed there was no uptick in hate crimes against Asians, Min told HuffPost Canada in an interview. Without statistics, it meant these incidents didn’t officially exist.
Frustrated, Min took it upon herself to gather incident reports in Quebec, starting last March. A video-game writer by day, Min used her spare time to collect testimonies online, starting on Facebook.
Between March to May 2020, she collected approximately 30 accounts detailing the racist vitriol Asians were targeted with in Quebec. Stories ranged from people being called the “China virus,” to bank clerks refusing to serve Asian patrons.
One victim, who worked at a Tim Hortons, said a customer requested to be served by a non-Asian manager instead, mentioning her concern with COVID-19.
“I have sometimes faced racism [in Canada] but the experience of these past two to three months has been terrible.”
Min herself had experienced several incidents with racism and hostility. One time, a man snuck up behind her on a deserted street and called her “folle chinoise” (crazy Chinese) and continued to look back, hurling racial slurs at her.
Victims expressed shock and fear and worried how disinformation amplified racial aggression, scapegoating Asians for the virus. Telling their stories was a way for victims to offload their buried pain.
Many didn’t file police reports, fearing they wouldn’t be believed and in some cases, Min said, it was the police who were the ones discriminating against them. One victim said police were called after a racist incident escalated with her neighbours. After speaking to both parties, the police reminded her about freedom of speech in Canada. Baffled by the response, she considered moving back to Korea after spending 20 years in Canada. “I have sometimes faced racism [in Canada] but the experience of these past two to three months has been terrible,” she told Min.
Min said the Korean community was particularly shaken after a South Korean academic was stabbed outside a Korean supermarket in Montreal on March 15. The victim believed it was a hate crime and left Canada soon after. The consulate issued a safety warning to its citizens after the incident.
“There was always that questioning of: ‘Are you sure this is happening?’”
Incidents like this were happening across the country.
In April, two concerned Asian Canadians in Vancouver launched Project 1907, horrified by the racism they experienced and witnessed in Chinatown. The Chinese Canadian National Council — For Social Justice (CCNC-SJ) started a website to report and track incidents across Canada. The groups decided to pool their incident data together. To date, they have collected more than 700 anti-Asian incidents.
Min presented her findings alongside co-author and McGill law student, Lily Wang, to the Quebec media in May. But even with proof, Min still felt doubted.
“We did a lot of interviews on radio and TV … [but] there was always that questioning of: ‘Are you sure this is happening?’ … ‘Are you sure maybe it’s not because Asian people wear masks?’” Min, 27, said, referring to the fact mask-wearing was uncommon at the start of the pandemic.
Anti-Asian racism is ever-present in Canada, but COVID-19 has exacerbated it. Police in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver all confirmed in email statements that hate crimes against Asians have increased during the pandemic. Last month, Vancouver police released data showing a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes since last March. In B.C., Premier John Horgan said prosecuting hate crimes will be a priority for his government. Generally, hate crimes are difficult to prosecute because many incidents aren’t viewed as crimes.
Recently, the CCNC-SJ launched an awareness campaign called #FaceRace, sharing the lived experiences of Asian-Canadians during COVID-19. In February, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) also released a resource for teachers to tackle anti-Asian racism.
Part of the work debunks the “model minority myth” where Asians are perceived to “conform to white norms,” said Jason To, a TDSB teacher and co-author of the anti-Asian racism teaching resource.
Asians are assumed to be hardworking and quiet, laying low to assimilate into society. It’s helped with upward mobility but has come at a cost, according to To. Anti-Asian racism has risen in Toronto schools and in a quest to fit in, students will try not to stand out.
“When white culture ... and the ways in which we’re supposed to act and behave in schools is set by these white standards, you may not necessarily be fitting in right based on those criteria,” To said. Schools need to foster inclusiveness, where “kids are encouraged to speak up and stand out and be themselves.”
Very few hate-crime victims report their attacks
One year on, we’ve seen elderly Asian Canadians assaulted, health-care workers facing racism and students bullied. But, barely 10 per cent of hate-crime victims file police reports, said Fo Niemi, executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR). Oftentimes, the Asian community, due to cultural upbringing, are less likely to speak out, he added.
Anti-Asian racism, even before the pandemic, could be most felt by depanneur (convenience store) owners, often newly arrived immigrants with little local language skills, according to Niemi. During the pandemic, he said several of his depanneur clients suffered constant racist remarks and had their storefronts vandalized. Fearing repercussions, many victims don’t report.
Wenjun Mo, 52, owns a depanneur in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood. He said he’s experienced racism before and expressed how disappointed he is to hear of such stories, because depanneurs are essential service workers who kept their shops open throughout the pandemic.
“I’m a Québécer. I even have the proper Québécois accent!” said Mo, who immigrated from China to Canada in 2007 with his wife and son. As other depanneurs shuttered during lockdowns, he decided to stay open to serve his neighbourhood.
“I ate two eggs a day to stay strong,” he said. Even lacking personal protective equipment (PPE), he continued to work because he said his customers depended on him.
“In this job, I’ve faced the gun, the knife,” Mo said, adding how the fatal stabbing of a fellow Chinese depanneur owner in November left him shaken to this day. He feels anxiety and sadness remembering the incident. “He died where he worked, behind the counter,” he said, shaking his head. “That could be me.”
He commends the 49-year-old victim’s wife, who reopened the shop mere weeks after his death. “She’s super brave!” he said.
From awareness to action
Global conversations about anti-Asian racism have been in the spotlight since a string of recent attacks against elderly Asian Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. Celebrities amplified the call for help to nab the suspects and urged mainstream media to pay attention.
On social media, the hashtag #stopasianhate has been trending, with influencers posting pictures of their grandparents, voicing the fear they have for their aging loved ones. Now, hundreds of volunteers have offered to escort elderly Asian folks around safely. In response, the Black and Asian communities have rallied together in solidarity.
Despite the campaigns, attacks continue. Since last March, more than 3,000 hate crimes against Asians were reported in the U.S.
Min couldn’t sustain her data collection past last summer due to work. But, a thriving Facebook community started in March by Montrealer, Laura Luu, called Groupe d’Entraide contre le racisme envers les asiatiques au Québec, became an extension of her mission. It has been a source of support for the Asian community to share information, testimonies and to get help for mental health. The group has amassed almost 6,000 members.
Group administrator, Julie Tran, hosts Zoom meetings for members to discuss topics such as microaggressions and racism. The social work graduate student said the pandemic made her question her own identity as a Québécer and saw herself making decisions she normally wouldn’t think twice about before. “I felt safer grocery shopping at Asian stores instead … it was a way for me to protect myself from discrimination,” Tran said.
To spark change, more help needs to come from the top, Min said. This comes on the heels of Quebec premier, François Legault, declaring that systemic racism doesn’t exist in the province. Last Wednesday, Legault’s newly appointed minister responsible for fighting racism, Benoit Charette, who is white, maintained that position. Min added that the first time she heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak out against anti-Asian racism was when an MP made racist remarks against Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.
“I think because of [Asian-Canadians’] reluctance to talk about [racism], it gives the government an excuse not to address it.”
Avvy Go, clinic director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto, said COVID-19 has forced many Asian-Canadians to face race.
“I think because of [Asian Canadians’] reluctance to talk about [racism], it gives the government an excuse not to address it,” Go said, adding the federal government’s anti-racism strategy doesn’t mention anti-Asian racism, stressing how it’s imperative to be included in the post-COVID-19 recovery plan. Go encourages Asian-Canadians to be brave, speak up about their experiences and voice their concerns.
Project 1907, a reference to the anti-Asian race riots in Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown, is a resource and way for victims to report their encounters with racism.
Doris, the co-founder, wanted to keep her surname anonymous due to previous harassment. She advises allies to listen to victims and believe their experiences. If you witness a hate crime, step up to help and record the incident.
Canada’s long history with anti-Asian government policies dating back to Confederation means the racism is so entrenched and internalized that some people don’t recognize it. Doris recalled an example where she was explaining Project 1907 to her mother. While she was talking, her mom quipped that she had been on the receiving end of racist name-calling.
“She didn’t even think of it as racism,” Doris said, adding: “We expect to take for granted that people yell at us and call us racial names. There’s something wrong there.”