COVID-19 Highlights Anti-Asian Racism Rampant In Canada

COVID-19 has sparked anti-Asian racism in countries around the world. In echoes of its anti-Asian history, Canada is among them.
A group of Canadian residents of Chinese descent protest racism – 2016 (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG)

A group of Canadian residents of Chinese descent protest racism – 2016 (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG)

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Bàrbara Molas is PhD candidate in History at York University (Toronto) and Head of Doctoral Fellows at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). At York, Bàrbara studies far-right understandings of multiculturalism in Canada.

Just like many other white-dominated countries, Canada has seen a rising tide of anti-Asian racism since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak. ‘Traumatized’ by the spread of another virus of the same family in 2003 (SARS-CoV), COVID-19 has already triggered unprecedented levels of misinformation and suspicion – causing a dramatic increase in xenophobic attitudes, particularly in the multicultural cities of Toronto (Ontario), Montreal (Quebec) and Vancouver (British Columbia).

Such attitudes have been tracked by the Angus Reid Institute and the University of Alberta, revealing a widespread anti-Chinese racism that researchers now refer to as a “shadow pandemic.

In order to illustrate this “shadow pandemic”, this article explores some anti-Chinese racist responses to the threat of coronavirus that occurred in Canada from January to May 2020, including phase one of lockdown. The responses considered in this article are shaped by historical understandings of Chinese immigrants as ‘aliens’, a view that insists in characterizing the group as composed by ‘temporary’ residents or ‘foreigners’ regardless of their actual status. These ideas date as far back as 1871, when the Canadian government recruited and hired thousands of Chinese workers as cheap labor to work in the West Coast.

While there was an economic need for such labor, the government also wanted to preserve a British-dominated society. So, in order to justify their ‘transient’ status, the Canadian government depicted Chinese immigrants as “dangerous to [the] white [population]” and “unhealthy”, explicitly stating that they had a “standard of morality immeasurably below us.” This article uses anti-Chinese responses to COVID-19 to illustrate the prejudices that have characterized Canadian relations with – and interpretations – of the Chinese community since the mid-19th century. It concludes by suggesting that the recent anti-Asian upsurge in Canada presents a comparable – if not a greater and more long-lasting – danger than coronavirus itself.

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The ‘Yellow Peril’

Shortly after learning about the newly discovered strain of coronavirus, nearly 10,000 parents in York, Toronto, signed a petition demanding that students who had recently traveled to China “stay home and keep isolated”. The York District School Board condemned the petition amid fears that students would be targeted based on their ethnicity. It insisted on the importance of not seeing COVID-19 “as a Chinese virus.” Yet the pandora box had already been opened.

The CBC reported that in some workplaces Chinese employees were told “not to come back to work the next day” after some individuals had been coughing at the office. Similarly, in public transit, there have been reports of passengers moving away from passengers with Asian characteristics, fearing that they might be carrying “the Chinese disease”.

“Unfortunately, the ‘yellow peril’ term used against the Chinese, it’s still here”, said Amy Go, who is the interim national president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice in Toronto. Go compared the situation with 2003, pointing out that in the present episode social media has made it even easier for hateful ideas to spread. Indeed, the internet is now the place where xenophobic attitudes about the coronavirus are most prevalent and have spread more rapidly, according to sociology professor at Toronto’s York University, Harris Ali. Illustrative of this, in January this year, CTV investigative reporter Peter Akman tweeted a photo of him next to an Asian barber wearing a medical mask: “Hopefully ALL I got today is a haircut,” he wrote reprehensively. After being reprimanded for the offensive tweet, Akman apologized by admitting it was “insensitive”.

Among the main social media platforms, Facebook has also been a main source of harassment. For example, Montreal’s Asian population state that pages on Facebook “relay complete lies” on the virus – perpetuating misinformation and increasing discrimination they have been facing since the outbreak began. Online anti-Asian racist incidents have had direct, real-world consequences too. For example, in Montreal an active boycott against Asian-run businesses has accompanied the spread of COVID-19-related online discrimination.

British Columbia, a Western Canadian province known for its long history of anti-Asian racist legislation, has been the focus of many COVID-19-related racist incidents. The Vancouver Police Department said that more than 20 anti-Asian hate crimes have been reported to police so far this year – compared to a total of 12 that occurred in 2019.

The incidents include offensive graffiti on the Vancouver Chinese Cultural Centre; a verbal and physical assault on an elderly man in a convenience store; and another assault on an Asian woman in Granville Street. Despite all the investigations, so far “no hate crime charges have been approved,” allegedly because such crimes have been “underreported”.

In Kelowna, a city in British Columbia, a couple of property salespeople posted racist internet memes in relation to Chinese real estate customers. Even though the posts were taken down shortly after, they were released and the realtors recognized the content as offensive. However, this did not prevent the memes from spreading to other Instagram accounts in order to incite xenophobic prejudice against Chinese citizens elsewhere.

“Realtors in Kelowna posted racist internet memes in relation to Chinese real estate customers”. Source: CBC, ‘Unacceptable’: Realtors’ Instagram posts on China and coronavirus provoke outrage’, February 15, 2020.

“Realtors in Kelowna posted racist internet memes in relation to Chinese real estate customers”. Source: CBC, ‘Unacceptable’: Realtors’ Instagram posts on China and coronavirus provoke outrage’, February 15, 2020.

In the face of events like this, in March 2020 a Chinese Canadian group created a “Stop the Spread” counter-narrative campaign aimed at combatting COVID-19-related racism. In Toronto, members of the group dressed in hazmat suits handing out hand sanitizer, whose purposes or “Uses” included “Protects against toxic behavior” and “Explosive personal growth may result.” The “Directions” read “Apply liberally to alleviate irrational fear.”

The campaign aims to fight misinformation and “coronavirus-inspired xenophobia” against the Chinese Canadian community. Other initiatives include “Elimin8hate”, an online form that allows citizens to report COVID-19-related racist incidents. The aim is to “build a more coordinated effort in understanding the impacts of rising anti-Asian racism” in Canada.


Canadian of Taiwanese descent, Carol Liao, who is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Allard School of Law, reminds us that “Anti-Asian sentiments are not new.” To be specific, Canadian history – and particularly the history of Western Canada – is scarred by the Chinese head tax and what came to be known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. These measures, which were part of subsequent revisions of the Chinese Immigration Act (1885, 1900, 1923), were established to keep Chinese immigrants from staying in Canada after having moved there to work, primarily to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The Act was essentially a means to manipulate “the flow of migrants to the new Canada to be weighted towards European and in particular British migrants”, explains Henry Yu, associate professor in UBC’s department of History. The Act was kept in place until 1947, but even after that emigration to Canada was challenging for the Chinese. “It’s just that COVID-19 has been shining a spotlight on an ugly issue that many people in Canada have always faced, and has now escalated”, claims Professor Liao. Indeed, the sort of sentiment that COVID-19 has triggered across Canada reveals a current of everyday racism against communities of Asian descent that was ever-present but not always tangible – until now.

Yu says that “combating these racist incidents is comparable to our fight against COVID-19.” The message is clear. Unless racist hatred is fought as vigorously as COVID-19, when the virus is gone the world will be left with an ever more dangerous pandemic – and no vaccine will save us from this one.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // Anti-Asian Hate / Canada / CARR / Coronavirus / Racism / Radical Right