While May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, the emergence of Covid-19 has seen a reported rise in hate crimes and racism toward people of East Asian descent.
In Yellowknife, several residents told Cabin Radio that’s not their experience.
Liang Chen, who is of Chinese descent and runs a tourism company in Yellowknife, said he and ethnically Chinese friends in the city haven’t felt treated differently during the pandemic.
He chalks that up to the small, close-knit community in Yellowknife, saying racism is largely fuelled by ignorance.
“You know your neighbours, you know your neighbour’s neighbours, and you know their friends. It’s a small town,” he said.
“We’re neighbours, we’re all residents and we all care. Everybody cares about our family and immediate surroundings.”
Chen noted many industries in the Northwest Territories, like the service sector, wouldn’t be able to function without people who moved from other countries to live and work here.
“It’s unthinkable that this community can live without essential members of different ethnic groups,” he said.
Seiji Suzuki, who is of Japanese descent and owns the Sushi North and Ja-Pain eateries, said he hasn’t experienced or heard of an increase in anti-Asian racism in Yellowknife since the global spread of Covid-19.
Prior to the pandemic, Suzuki said there was at least one incident where an intoxicated person told staff to “just go home to your country.” But he said that’s not a regular occurrence and people have generally been supportive of the restaurant and bakery, which are currently open for takeout and delivery.
Since pandemic-related travel restrictions were put in place in the NWT, some people have complained about spotting tourists in the territory – in apparent contravention of the rules.
However, officials say investigations of those reports usually concluded the “tourists” in question were northern residents.
On April 29, Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola confirmed the government had received a number of complaints “along that nature.” She said those reports were investigated right away and closed quickly, adding there are a number of international residents living and working in the territory.
“Sometimes that gets confused if they’re out and about in the public,” she said.
According to government spokesperson Mike Westwick, five investigations related to reports of tourists in the territory were completed between March 18 and March 26. He said several other reports were made during the same period, but not enough information was given to investigate them.
“Needless to say it raised a flag with us that there were some misunderstandings going on, so we felt the need to address the concern publicly,” Westwick told Cabin Radio.
According to census data, there were 375 people of ethnic Chinese origin living in the Northwest Territories in 2016, 270 of whom resided in Yellowknife. There were also 200 people of ethnic Japanese origin, 105 people of Korean origin, 20 of Taiwanese origin, and 245 of Vietnamese origin living in the territory in 2016. The majority of those populations lived in Yellowknife.
A spokesperson for RCMP in the NWT said police had not received any complaints about anti-Asian racism or discrimination during the pandemic.
Hate crimes on the rise across Canada
The picture is different in southern Canada.
There has been a reported rise in hate crimes against East Asian people across the country following the origination of Covid-19 in China.
In Vancouver, police have said hate crimes against East Asian people doubled from five cases in March to 11 in April. Police in Montreal are investigating vandalism at Buddhist temples and in the city’s Chinatown neighbourhood as hate crimes.
In Ottawa, police are looking into recent reports that two people in a car yelled racist slurs at Asian pedestrians.
Results from an April 27 poll by the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice indicate anti-Asian bias has risen in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Among its findings, the research shows 21 percent of respondents in those cities felt it was unsafe to sit next to an Asian or Chinese person on a bus if they weren’t wearing a mask.
This has prompted public figures – from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr Theresa Tam – to speak out against racism linked to Covid-19. Anti-racism campaigns have been launched in Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Clint Curle, vice president of exhibitions, curation, and partnership at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, said the spike in hate crimes is worrying.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. Photo: Aaron Cohen/CMHR-MCDP
He noted many people are naturally afraid and feel insecure during the pandemic. While that’s led some people to be more empathetic, he said, others have channelled those feelings into blaming and scapegoating East Asian communities.
“It’s not really a time to cast blame, it’s a time to come together and support each other,” he said.
“Covid-19 doesn’t care what your ethnic or cultural background is, this virus is not racist, it’s attacking everyone. We’re all in this together.”
Curle said the issue must be carefully monitored as patterns of discrimination throughout history have begun with words, moved on to acts of violence and, in some cases, led to atrocities.
“When we pick a particular difference between people and use it to increase suspicion of them, to insult them, to exclude them … it dismantles a sense of connection between people,” he explained.
“We’re all different and those differences need to be respected. That’s really what human rights is all about.”
Curle noted there is a long history of anti-Asian discrimination in Canada.
That includes the Chinese head tax, a tax levied on Chinese immigrants to Canada between 1885 and 1923; the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which heavily restricted Chinese immigration to Canada; and the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War Two.
“I think that should serve to make us a bit more alert to those patterns repeating again,” Curle said. “Especially in times of fear and uncertainty like we have now.”