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Towards an Inclusive Future for East Asians

JULY 2024

My name is Jasmine Ryu Won Kang, and I am a fourth-year Biochemistry and Immunology student at the University of Toronto.

Throughout the UofMosaic fellowship, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to build my skills in advocacy and continue my ongoing learning process surrounding the various forms of prejudice currently present in Canada.

 

I chose to write this paper on the topic of the legacy of discriminatory policies and cultural attitudes towards East Asian communities in Canada. In this paper, I provide a historical context behind this prejudice and discuss the implications of heightened anti-Asian racism during the COVID--19 pandemic. Finally, I outline strategies for how our schools, workplaces, and communities can become more inclusive spaces for East Asian Canadians. This topic is closely tied to the Mosaic Institute’s broader themes of diversity and inclusion, and is centered around actionable steps to mitigate prejudice and conflict. 

Through sharing these ideas, my ultimate goal is to encourage dialogue surrounding the importance of East Asian inclusion in Canada.

AUTHOR

Jasmine Ryu Won Kang

UofMosaic Fellow

Cohort: 2021 - 2023

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Anti-Asian legislation and cultural attitudes have occupied a significant role in Canadian history. Deep-seated biases and notions concerning the foreignness of East Asian Canadians continue to make an impact on the well-being of East Asian communities in the present day. This influence has been extensively highlighted within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the societal blame for the spread of the virus has routinely and unjustly been placed on East Asian Canadian communities, resulting in high levels of anxiety and trauma (Guo 2021). According to Statistics Canada, East Asian Canadians can include Chinese Canadian, Hong Kong Canadian, Japanese Canadian, Korean Canadian, Mongolian Canadian, Taiwanese Canadian, or Tibetan Canadian (Statistics Canada 2023). Against the backdrop of extant xenophobia towards East Asians in the Canadian context, this article serves to share actionable strategies to foster inclusiveness towards East Asian communities. 

A BRIEF HISTORICAL EXAMINATION OF THE IMMIGRATION EXPERIENCES OF EAST ASIAN COMMUNITIES

In the 1850s, the west coast of Canada was marked by the transpacific migration of Chinese communities from the British port of Hong Kong. Cantonese labourers served as the backbone of the numerous burgeoning agricultural and industrial industries, such as mining, logging, manufacturing, and fishing. Most notably, their contributions to the building of the transcontinental rail networks have made an indelible mark on the legacy of transportation infrastructure in Canada. 

Chinese labourers, however, were met with significant challenges in establishing a sustainable living and faced ethnically-based obstacles. For instance, the Chinese Head Tax was created by the federal government of Canada that charged Chinese immigrants $50 when they arrived in Vancouver. This tax increased over the years to $100 in 1900 and $500 in 1903 (Guo 2021). While this generated revenue for the state, individuals required to pay this hefty fee were placed at a significant economic disadvantage as they began their lives in Canada. 

Twenty years later, the federal government passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which created further barriers by explicitly prohibiting the entry of Chinese immigrants into Canada (Guo 2021). The Chinese population in Canada was, furthermore, restricted from voting, entering professions such as law, medicine, and accounting, and acquiring Crown land. The labourers were additionally met with ongoing anti-Chinese rhetoric, us-vs-them language, and messaging that claimed that the influx of Chinese immigrants led to the erasure of jobs available to White workers. This claim was disproved by the fact that White workers who arrived on the Pacific coast would often be granted jobs originally held by Chinese workers (Yoo and Azuma 2016). 

As anti-Chinese rhetoric expanded to racial discrimination against other East Asian ethnicities, it was clear that the democratic processes governing Canadian societies were failing to grant equal rights to East Asian communities and were infused with explicit manifestations of White supremacy. 

ANTI-ASIAN RHETORIC IN THE CURRENT CONTEXT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

The discourse surrounding the history of discrimination against East Asian communities strikes a particularly discordant chord when juxtaposed against the experience of these communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. During a time of public uncertainty and widely circulating misinformation, East Asian communities, particularly those of Chinese heritage, became targets of verbal and physical abuse and often bore the blame of being the “virus carriers” responsible for initiating the pandemic (Zhao et al., 2022). Particularly egregious incidents of discrimination included violent attacks on elderly individuals of East Asian background and mass vandalization of East Asian-owned shops and restaurants in Canada. 

 

The politicization of the pandemic has exacerbated the continued and growing anti-Asian sentiment found in Canada. The sense of otherness that was thrust upon the East Asian community during the pandemic stemmed from a historical yet still circulating notion of “yellow peril” that has existed in Canada (Zhao et al., 2022). Although anti-Asian discrimination has seen a notable spike during the pandemic, it has remained a steadfast component of the cultural hierarchy that has led to negative mental health outcomes in East Asian Canadians over the long term.

 

The current immigration experience of East Asian immigrants to Canada has been populated by encounters with structural barriers to finding one’s place within Canadian society. Highly educated East Asian immigrants often report experiences of downward social mobility and underemployment, explained at least in part by existing biases within Canadian education systems and labour markets (Guo 2021). Furthermore, East Asian students seeking higher education at Canadian universities and colleges are often met with the discourse that Asians occupy too large of a fraction of the student body (Guo 2021). This finding is especially striking given that, since the 1990s, Canada has increasingly depended on the skills and expertise of workers in the knowledge economy and has steadily relied upon immigration from East Asia to address domestic labour shortages.

ADVANCING EAST ASIAN CANADIAN
INCLUSION AND REPRESENTATION

Moving forward towards a future in Canada where workplace, school, and home environments not only accept but celebrate the presence of East Asian communities requires active mechanisms within systems and sectors. I will recommend approaches targeting early education and media representation of East Asians (APF, 2021), to advance East Asian Canadian inclusion and representation.. 

 

A survey conducted by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in 2017 found that two out of three participants under 35 years old reported that their high school education about Asian histories was lacking. Given that 47% of the Toronto District School Board’s student body self-identifies as Asian and the crucial roles that Asian communities play in a variety of sectors, the lack of this form of education represents a significant cultural concern (APF, 2021). To overcome this “racial silencing,” preliminary initiatives have been launched, such as the “Legacy Projects” series spearheaded by the BC government, which aimed to acknowledge the acts of discrimination that were laid upon Chinese immigrants in the past. Although a promising beginning, curricula such as these should be broadened in reach and scope to include the current lived experiences of East Asian Canadians. 

 

Another strategy to improve East Asian inclusion in Canadian communities should involve the increase and diversification of East Asian representation in various forms of media. Media n plays an indispensable role in shaping Canadians’ unconscious biases and perceptions about diverse cultures. The severe shortage of East Asian representation in the past has lead to lack of knowledge and understanding of East Asian people, as well theEast Asian media representation to date has been limited and infused with cultural stereotypes such that East Asian characters have rarely been afforded the complexity and maturity of their white counterparts. To dismantle this monolithic picture of the East Asian experience, Canadian media industries should consider not only the quantity but also the quality of East Asian representation and provide opportunities for East Asian audiences to identify with authentic characters on-screen. 

REFERENCES

Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada (APF). 2021. “Where do we go from here?” Accessed Aug 25, 2022. https://www.asiapacific.ca/sites/default/files/publication-pdf/YouthRacismReport2021.pdf


Guo, Shibao, and Yan Guo. 2021. "Combating Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia in Canada: Toward Pandemic Anti-Racism Education in Post-covid-19." Beijing International Review of Education 3, 2 (2021): 187-211, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/25902539-03020004


Government of Canada, Statistics Canada. 2022. "Ethnic or cultural origin by gender and age: Canada, provinces and territories, census metropolitan areas and census agglomerations with parts". www12.statcan.gc.ca. Retrieved 2023-01-13.


Yoo, David, and Eiichiro Azuma. 2020. The Oxford Handbook of Asian American History. New York: Oxford University Press.


Zhao, Kedi, Carolyn O’Connor, Trish Lenz, and Lin Fang. 2022. “Conceptualizing Anti-Asian Racism in Canada during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Call for Action to Social Workers.” Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 1–11. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/15313204.2022.2070892. 

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