Asian Canadians see flaws in federal anti-racism strategy

Advocates for Asian Canadians are calling for improvements to the federal government’s anti-racism strategy to confront a surge in anti-Asian racism.

Avvy Go, executive director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto, said the strategy failed to specifically mention anti-Asian racism in its foundational policy document. The document does cite anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as key targets.

“It’s a serious flaw in the current strategy,” Go told CBC News.

“We hope that the government will amend the strategy and, more importantly, they will develop concrete actions to address racism of all forms.”

The call comes amid a reported surge in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country and abroad during the pandemic.

According to a report published in March by the Chinese Canadian National Council, more than 1,150 instances of anti-Asian racism were reported through two websites — COVIDRacism.ca and elimin8hate.org — between March 10, 2020, and Feb. 28, 2021. Misinformation and racist beliefs related to the fact that the novel coronavirus first emerged in China are behind the surge in attacks, the authors wrote.

In Vancouver, the police department reported that anti-Asian hate crimes climbed from just 12 cases in 2019 to 98 in 2020 — an increase of 717 per cent.

And data from Statistics Canada released in July 2020 suggest that Canadians with Asian backgrounds were more likely to report increased racial or ethnic harassment during the pandemic than the rest of the population. The largest increase was seen among people of Chinese, Korean and Southeast Asian descent.Fay Chung wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, says the federal government's anti-racism strategy should be updated to include anti-Asian racism.© Keith Whelan/CBC Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, says the federal government’s anti-racism strategy should be updated to include anti-Asian racism.

Go, a Canadian citizen who was born in Hong Kong, said she’s had several frightening experiences herself.

“In one particular incident, when I was just walking home, somebody spat at me,” she said.

“Almost every single Chinese Canadian I know has experienced something, some incident during the past year, whether it’s people yelling at them, telling them to go back to China or being denied service …

“Anti-Asian racism is in a crisis stage right now.”

Targeting systemic racism in government and communities

The federal Anti-Racism Strategy, introduced in 2019, commits the government to “building a foundation for change by removing barriers and promoting a country where every person is able to fully participate and have an equal opportunity to succeed.”

The strategy calls for a “whole-of-government approach” to addressing systemic racism in federal policies and programs, to empowering communities and to public awareness and education.

The government allocated $45 million over three years to implement the strategy — $4.5 million for an anti-racism secretariat within the public service, $30 million for community-based projects, $6 million to Statistics Canada to collect better data and $5 million to combat online misinformation and hate speech.

In her government’s fall economic statement, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland committed another $50 million to anti-racism initiatives over two years.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Canadian Heritage said 85 community projects worth $15 million have been funded already under the strategy.

Some of that money went to initiatives linked to anti-Asian racism — including one to counter COVID-19 disinformation affecting Vancouver’s Chinese and Vietnamese language communities and one that examines the presence of online hate on Chinese language media platforms in Canada.

“While [the anti-racism strategy] already commits to combating racism and discrimination in all its forms, we recognize that anti-Asian racism needs to be specifically referenced in the strategy,” department spokesperson Amélie Mathieu wrote in an email.

Mathieu listed a number of other measures the government has taken to combat anti-Asian racism, including consulting with Asian Canadians to ensure that their needs informed the government’s response to COVID-19.

She said the government is also working to diversify the public service, open up economic opportunities for racialized communities and do a better job of collecting race-based data.

But critics argue that, two years into the strategy, progress has been slow.

Permanent funding needed, advocates say

Shalini Konanur, executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, said the focus needs to move beyond funding community projects to a wholesale examination of how government policies and programs put racialized people at a disadvantage.

She said the anti-racism secretariat doesn’t have the resources it needs to do that work.

“Many of the things that need to be fixed are systemic issues within government [such as] barriers in income support, in immigration and employment legislation,” said Konanur.

“As it stands, [the secretariat is] limited in the work that they can do.” 

Konanur said the anti-racism secretariat should be funded at a level similar to that of Women and Gender Equality Canada —a full-status federal department with an average annual budget of $134 million between 2018 and 2022.

“If Canada is now serious on anti-racism … the budget really needs to provide ample resources to make that secretariat fully functional and able to then go across government and look at different ways in which systemic racism creates barriers,” said Konanur.

Advocates call for a national action plan

Go and Konanur are part of a coalition of groups that submitted a plan to Freeland’s office ahead of the upcoming federal budget.

Their proposal calls on the government to: increase funding for the anti-racism secretariat and make it permanent; develop a comprehensive national action plan to guide its work; develop a stronger mandate for the collection of race-based data; and pass legislation that would enshrine in law the anti-racism secretariat and other anti-racism programs so they can’t be scrapped by a future government with different priorities.

NDP MP Jenny Kwan also has been pushing the federal government to take stronger action against anti-Asian racism.

Kwan questioned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the issue in the House of Commons last month. Trudeau responded by saying the rise in anti-Asian hatred and racism is “horrific” and “unacceptable” and reiterated the government’s commitment to fighting it.

“The prime minister is often quick to come out to condemn these actions, but we need more than that, more than words to address this,” said Kwan. “We should all condemn these actions and then follow up [with] action to ensure that we address these issues in a holistic way.”

The NDP received unanimous consent from MPs in the House of Commons to pass two motions in late March — one that called on the government to include anti-Asian racism in the Anti-Racism Strategy and another that demanded action on hate crimes in Canada. 

Kwan said every police department in Canada should have a hate crime unit made up of officers with adequate training — something she said is currently not the case. She also called on the government to review its current and past policies with an eye to amending those that put racialized people at a disadvantage.

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