Asian-Heritage Month 2020 in Canada amidst COVID-19

The federal government officially recognized Asian Heritage Month in Canada in May 2002. making May the month to celebrate and recognize the many contributions members of the Asian communities make. 

First update: June 1, 2020, 6:35 AM


Mildred German

May 30, 2020

Unceded Territories – With the U.S. President calling the coronavirus, the “Chinese Virus”, the misinformations, discrimination and hostility against Asians communities increase amidst COVID-19 pandemic.

Numerous incidents of hate crimes have been reported from the East Coast to the West Coast. In Toronto, the Chinese Canadian community spoke on the budding racism against their communities in a press conference in January 2020. Then, came the report of a frontline nurse spat on and verbally assaulted with racial slurs outside a restaurant.

“It happened because I’m Asian”, said Katherine Cheung, a Toronto nurse who said she was the victim of the racially motivated attack in April. 2020.

In Vancouver, the increasing hate crimes, racism, and Anti-Asian hostility have also left the Asian Canadian communities rattled.  Recently as Vancouver proclaimed May 29 as ‘Day of Action Against Racism’, the Chinatown Lions were vandalised twice, from its first incident on May 20 to the second time on May 29, the same day as the city’s anti-racism proclamation.The increasing numbers of incidents of anti-Asian racism keep on adding.

The Filipino workers of Alberta’s Cargill meat processing plant

Half of Cargill’s 2,000 workers were infected, a majority of whom were Filipinos. (CTVNews)

Racism also is reflected in the systemic and structural level,greatly affecting communities of Asian descent  in Canada. Particularly in the case of Canada’s largest coronavirus outbreak, Alberta Cargill’s 949 cases of COVID-19 is a result of Canada’s long history of failure to protect foreign and temporary workers propping the economy and hailed as “essential workers” during the pandemic.

However, Canada’s failure to enforce regulatory and safety protocols for all workers, including migrant workers and temporary workers, to provide proper personal protective equipment (PPE) has led to the 949 workers to test positive for the coronavirus. Nearly 80% of the workers in this giant meat processing plant are from the Philippines.

Unfortunately, Biu Thi Hiep, a Cargill woman worker from Vietnam, died of  COVID-19 after 23 years of service to the company. Also, the father of Arwyn Salegue, a Filipino worker at the meat processing plant,  passed away due to the deadly coronavirus he contracted from his son, Arwyn, who also tested positive.

Rather than resolving the systemic problems leading to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the workplace, Alberta Cargill forced the workers to resume work despite the concerns and worry  of the workers. In addition, the Filipino community in Alberta also faced criticism and is being blamed for the outbreak. Noteworthy that Filipinos become more visible for scapegoating and are easily blamed in return for speaking out on the issues affecting them.

English Only-Policy

Earlier this month, a Filipino man, Jay Bercades, spoke out on what he witnessed in a Dollarama store in Regina, SK of three Filipino workers reprimanded by the manager to speak English only. Bercades was compelled to speak out and questioned the “English Only” policy in the establishment.

Reminded of the 2017 incident when a KFC franchise issued a public apology of a similar “English Only” policy in the workplace, Bercades knew that the interaction he witnessed between the Dollarama manager and the Filipino employees was wrong. He called out the company on its racist language policy.

Model Minorities

Earlier this month, Filipina worker Nym Calvez, a union organizer for Unite Here Local 40,

became a target of cyberbullying and campaigns calling for her deportation after she was interviewed on May 13 by CBC’s Rosemary Barton. The interview was how the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is affecting the workers in the hotel and hospitality industry.

Union worker Nym Calvez has been cyberbulleid after speaking out in a CBC interview. (Photo: The Star)

“The government helped us through the CERB, the $2,000 benefit they give us, but aside from that, there’s not much available for the workers and it’s pretty disappointing but we’re hoping in the long run or long term, the government will figure out something for the workers,” Calvez stated during the interview.

Calvez’s response went viral and became a subject of online bashing ,calling for her deportation, a lot for a woman who spoke out her concerns. She was faced with racist trolls, many coming from her fellow immigrants who condemned her for “embarrassing the Filipino community” and for being “ungrateful” to Canada. These behaviours expose the deepening issues of Canada’s worsening racism, class divide, misogyny, and the forced assimilation of “model minorities”, “good immigrants”, and “subservient Filipinos” to advance its exploitation of “cheap immigrant  labour”.

From Chinese railway workers to the Japanese fishermen, to Southasian  farmers and loggers, to the Filipino overseas workers in Canada, Canada has been dependent on “cheap immigrant labour”. Over the years, as Canada’s occupation of stolen land in Turtle Island grows, so is the struggle of Asian communities against  the many oppressive anti-Asian and “Whites Only” policies.

The Anti-Oriental Riots (1907)

This Chinese store on Powell St., in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside was attacked during the riot. The Kalayaan Centre was located beside this building. ( Photo: Museum of Vancouver)

The Anti-Oriental Riots happened on September 7-9, 1907 in Vancouver, BC  and was fuelled by anti-immigration attitudes and white nationalists perceiving Asians as taking “their” jobs. It was this Anti-Asian racism that resulted in the formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League in Canada. The League lobbied to ban  Asian immigration following the Australian model. (Australia, a Commonwealth country, widely used the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 and other policies to forbid people of non-European ethnic origin, especially Asians, and Pacific Islanders from immigrating to Australia.)

In the article, “The Vancouver Riot and its International Significance”, published in 1973, author Howard H. Sugimoto highlighted how Canada’s underlying early 20th century’s anti-immigration attitudes and agitation for direct action was disappointingly led by labour unions and small businesses at the time. Although no one was killed, Chinatown, Japantown, and Asian-owned properties and businesses were greatly damaged.

The Komagata Maru (1914)

On May 23, 1914, a crowded ship carrying 376 passengers, mostly immigrants from British India arrived in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. The Komagata Maru was denied docking by the authorities. Only 20 returning residents and the ship’s doctor and his family were eventually granted admission to Canada. The ship was escorted out by the Canadian military after two months in the harbour on July 23, 1914 and was forced to sail back to India. It arrived in India on September 27, where it was stopped by a British gunboat who saw the passengers as lawbreakers and political agitators, therefore many were imprisoned and killed upon return.

The Komagata Maru story highlighted the discrepancies in Canadian immigration laws, wherein the exclusionary policies of the Canadian government keep out non-white ethnicities deemed unfit to enter Canada.

Internment of Japanese Canadians (1942)
In 1942 in British Columbia, over 22,000 Japanese Canadians were evacuated and interned in the name of “national security” following Japan’s invasions and attacks of British Hong Kong, Malaya, and Pearl Harbour, Hawaii during World War 2.

Although the majority were Canadian citizens by birth, the government enforced relocations, internments, curfews, interrogations, loss of properties, job discriminations, and forced repatriation to Japan.  90% of the Japanese Canadian population were interned.

Importance of Anti-Asian Struggles

The above historical accounts of the Asian communities struggling to assert rights, safety, and dignity in Canada are some of the many past and present struggles of our communities to tackle racism in North America. Not only do they have local significance to many Asian communities in Canada, but also globally.

As COVID-19 affects many of our establishments and institutions, it is important to remain vigilant on the threats of racism against our communities. So is the demand for “cheap immigrant labour” for the many dirty, difficult, and dangerous jobs many Canadians do not want. It is important to analyse and be critical of colonial oppressive systems that depend on the exploitation of migrant, immigrant, and undocumented labour. It is not wrong to practise our democratic rights, to assert and defend ourselves and our communities against racism and exploitation. 


(The views expressed are of the author and does not reflect the views of Philippine Canadian News.Com)


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