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May is Asian Heritage Month, when we take time to honour the diverse ways Asian Canadians have enriched our nation for over 200 years. From Jacques Cartier to Emily Carr, colonies and confederation, Canada’s vibrant history is as complex as our country is large. Some parts of our past aren’t acknowledged as often, however, including the full depth of experiences and sacrifices of the Asian community in Canada. 

Officially designated in 2002, Asian Heritage Month celebrates the culture and history of Canadians of Asian descent. While many Canadians celebrate with colourful festivals and cultural displays, it’s important that we also shine a light on the darkest parts of Canada’s history: the enduring problem of anti-Asian racism in Canada, in particular. 

We’re examining some of Canada’s history of anti-Asian racism and the laws and policies that have contributed to the oppression of Asian people in Canada. We’ll also look at the media’s role in perpetuating (and sometimes dispelling) harmful stereotypes. Our hope is that by reflecting on Asian Canadian experiences, we can have more meaningful ideas and conversations to help stop Asian hate in our society.

The History of Anti-Asian Racism in Canada

If you look closely at the fabric of Canada’s history, you’ll notice a dark thread of anti-Asian racist sentiment tracing its way back to our beginnings. Despite decades spent enriching our collective growth and success, Asian communities have had to confront significant barriers to social and economic progress due to systemic discrimination. 

Among the many documented cases of anti-Asian racism in our history, the Chinese Head Tax and subsequent Exclusion Act were among the first discriminatory legislations. Designed to limit Chinese immigration, these policies not only fueled hate but also institutionalized prejudice against the Chinese. At the time, people of Chinese descent living in Canada weren’t eligible for citizenship, having no legal status or ability to vote. From 1923 to 1947, the Chinese Exclusion Act was devastating for a generation of Chinese people living in Canada. The act prevented those who lived here from bringing over their family from China. The result was that thousands of men were often separated from their wives and children for years or decades.

Andi Shi of CPAC shares his thoughts on these policies. “It took people at least two or three years to save to pay the head tax. Every worker could save only about $47 a year. It was very, very prohibitive.” 

“The Exclusion Act led to a lot of family tragedies,” he added.  During World Wars I and II, Chinese men joined the Canadian military and fought for the country, yet they were not considered citizens. They wanted to serve anyway—including women.”

Anti-Asian racism continued in 1914, when hundreds of people from South Asia were denied entry when they landed on Vancouver’s shores on a ship called the SS Komagata Maru. Mostly Sikhs from Punjab, the passengers were turned away due to the discriminatory continuous journey regulation of Canada’s Immigration Act, which limited immigration from non-European countries. It resulted in a months-long impasse between immigration authorities and the passengers looking for a safe new home. The ship and most of its passengers were sent back to India, where 19 of them died in a battle with British soldiers.

Another example of profound injustice in Canada’s history is the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. From 1942 to 1949, when the allies were at war with Japan, the Canadian government incarcerated over 23,000 Japanese Canadians living in British Columbia in the name of “national security.” Among the hardships of the forced relocation were mandatory curfews, interrogations, lost jobs and housing, and enforced repatriation.

Our country’s history of anti-Asian racism still reverberates today, leaving scars that affect the lived experiences of Asian Canadians. Even as we’ve evolved towards multiculturalism and inclusivity, the issue of racism against Asians persists.

The Role of Media in Anti-Asian Racism

Have you ever wondered how the media influences racism? Whether through TV news, magazines, newspapers, or the internet, the media plays an integral role in how our society learns and unlearns harmful stereotypes. For good and bad, they shape opinions, prompt conversations, and, at times, perpetuate harmful biases. 

There are many instances of the media fanning the flames of anti-Asian sentiment. Sensationalized headlines, stereotypical portrayals, and selective reporting have all played a part in perpetuating harmful stereotypes and fostering an environment ripe for discrimination. 

We spoke with representatives from the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice (CCNC SJ), who shared that the media has sustained a pattern of marginalization and exclusion, interfering with many Asian Canadians’ sense of belonging. CCNC SJ pointed towards a false W5 story in the late 1970s that stoked outrage over a myth that “foreign” students were taking the place of “real” Canadians in universities and medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy schools.

“This incident is alarming because the media used false statistics to blatantly send racist messages to the public,” says CCNC SJ. “It had lasting effects on the Chinese-Canadian community, prompting activism, awareness, and a commitment to combat racism and discrimination.” 

Another more recent example of the media’s influence is during Covid-19, when many headlines and some commentary fueled hate and scapegoating. Racist rhetoric was frequent, with headlines declaring the pandemic the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.” Canadians witnessed a frightening rise in verbal and physical attacks against the Chinese (or people who simply looked Chinese). Unsurprisingly, many Asian Canadians reported feeling profoundly unsafe due to this increase in abuse.

We spoke with Andi Shi, executive director of CPAC, who says that many Asians were scapegoated for the virus’s spread, calling attention to the critical need for Canadians to confront and prevent systemic racism. 

“The experience during Covid, especially the first two years, was very visceral for pretty much all of us because we saw so much violence,” Shi said. “A lot of us have experienced all kinds of microaggressions. I mean, I experienced it. It was a very vulnerable time for us, and if you’re not part of the community, you probably wouldn’t understand how bad it was at the time.” 

It’s important to realize, though, that the media also has the potential for positive influence, increasing awareness, and correcting harmful misconceptions. We need a concerted effort to amplify Asian voices and experiences and bring more understanding and compassion to long-overlooked issues. Whether via documentaries, editorials, or investigative journalism, the complexities and dangers of anti-Asian racism should be unpacked and examined, challenging deep-rooted biases and fostering empathy.

The Long-term Implications of Anti-Asian Racism

Complex and interconnected, racism is an everyday reality for many Canadians of Asian descent, with far-reaching effects that seep through generations and communities. Studies show that some of the long-term effects of racism on Asian Canadians can include social exclusion, microaggressions in the workplace, political marginalization, a sense of unease and fear, a lack of safety and belonging, identity struggles, PTSD, and both physical and psychological harm. It also affects economic opportunities, educational success, social cohesion, and systemic inequalities. 

It’s crucial that we, as Canadians, confront the issues head-on so we can strive for fairness, equality, and unity.

How to Fight Anti-Asian Racism

We all have the power to encourage empathy, understanding, and purposeful change in the battle against Asian hate. Here are just a few ways you can get involved and address anti-Asian racism, helping create a more conscious and compassionate Canada: 

    • Listen and open your mind and heart to the diverse lived experiences of Canadians of Asian descent. Honour them when they bravely share their pain, truth, and traumas.
    • Learn more about Asian diversity and the array of unique cultures that enhance and deepen the social fabric of Canada. Understand that Asian diasporas are expansive, complex, and rich. Question stereotypes and systemic racism when you encounter them. Think about how they are rooted in our history and education. 
    • Encourage governments to vastly improve public outreach, foster tolerance, and more seriously counteract and punish hate speech and hate crimes.
  • Amplify diverse voices and nuanced narratives.

CPAC shares their thoughts on ways Canadians can help with this issue, and they said it all starts with what we learn in school. “Our current curriculum is not inclusive enough,” says Andi Shi. “I believe that one of the root causes of anti-Asian racism is because our schools have never taught the full history of Canada. In the minds of many [Canadian] students, generation after generation, people come out of school thinking that this is a wide European country. Somehow, in their subconscious, everybody thinks Asians are from an alien place. They’re immigrants; they’re foreigners. We have this perpetual ‘foreigner’ stereotype.”

Shi encourages all of us to be more curious and informed. “Awareness is important. People need to have this curiosity to know about different people, to really know their history, to ask people—don’t assume.” 

The Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice also weighed in with suggestions for battling racism here in Canada. “In committing ourselves to anti-racism and decolonization work, we must all recognise that our lives are interconnected to those of our ancestors and the many organizers and activists who came before us,” CNCC SJ said. “As we engage in our long-term goal to seek a different future that holds space for us all, we aim to capture community resistance, political and cultural activism, intergenerational organizing, community and solidarity building, identity-making, racial equity, and social justice to inform anti-racist practices, policies, and legislation.”

Resources for fighting racism


To eliminate anti-Asian racism in Canada, it’s essential that we speak out against discrimination and support initiatives that promote understanding and inclusivity. By taking action, we can create a more compassionate and equitable society for all Canadians.

This article was written by Heather Maxwell Hall. She is a Vancouver Island-based freelance writer and editor who’s been creating content for diverse publications and clients over a decade.

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