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Asian Heritage Month (Canada)

BY AMELIA ALAM



Asia is a large continent, both geographically and populationally. It’s a continent with 48 different countries and even more ethnic groups! From East Asia to South Asia to Southeast Asia to West Asia and to Central Asia, the people of Asia have a vast amount of diverse cultures, languages, and religions. There is so much history on the migration of each of these groups and each one holds a unique story. Specifically in Canada, Asians have contributed achievements and successes to our country, through resilience and dedication. This is why May is the month officially designated as Asian Heritage Month in Canada. This article will explain what Asian Heritage Month is, how it originated, the history of anti-Asian racism in Canada, the achievements of Asians in Canada, and what we can do to combat anti-Asian racism in the present day. Read on to find out more!

What is Asian Heritage Month and how did it originate?


Asian Heritage Month is an opportunity for all Canadians, regardless of their descent, to learn about and recognize the achievements made by Asian-Canadians. This month has been celebrated in different places across Canada since the 1990s, but the Government of Canada signed an official declaration to designate May as Asian Heritage Month in 2002. This was largely due to Senator Vivienne Poy, a former member of the Senate of Canada, who proposed the notion of officially dedicating May as Asian Heritage Month in 2001.


This year, the Honourable Bardish Chagger, the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth in the Parliament, has released a statement entailing the theme for Asian Heritage Month in 2021. It is “Recognition, Resilience, and Perseverance.” This is because we need to recognize the contributions that Asian-Canadians have made and continue to make. We need to celebrate the resilience from racism and discrimination that communities of Asian descent have faced for generations. Lastly, we need to resolve to do better to denounce all forms of anti-Asian racism. This month is an opportunity for all Canadians to learn about the achievements of Canadians of Asian heritage from all regions of Asia and to celebrate the languages, cultures, and religious traditions Asians have brought over to this country many generations ago.



Significant Historical Events of anti-Asian Racism in Canada:


First of all, the term “Asian” is not a monolith. There are so many different ethnic groups of people with ancestors originating in Asia that have had vastly different experiences of racism in Canadian history for generations. This has been especially apparent throughout the past, starting from as early as the 1880s, where the first Asians immigrated to Canada. These immigrants were mainly comprised of people with Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Korean, Lebanese, and Syrian heritage. While there are certain major historical events that certain ethnic groups have experienced, they do not diminish the experiences of racism that other Asian ethnic groups have endured. These historical events perpetuated anti-Asian racism and have become a somber part of Canadian history. Some of the most significant are the Chinese Head Taxes, the Japanese Internment Camps, and the Komagata Maru incident.


The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 remains as one of the darkest acts in Canadian history. Before explaining the act itself, it is important to understand the context in which the act was passed. Between 1881 and 1884, over 17,000 Chinese immigrants from mainland China arrived in Canada, as it was the easiest way to bring large numbers of workers to British Columbia from across the Pacific Ocean, to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Although there were already a few hundred Chinese people in Fraser River Valley that had immigrated from San Francisco, after the discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858, Chinese workers who came from mainland China made up the majority of Chinese people living in Canada. These Chinese workers made up three-fourths of all workers in total and were paid much lower wages than white workers, yet were more diligent and hardworking. Despite how hard these people worked (they were tearing down trees, removing rubble, digging ditches, and building mounds of crushed rock and gravel), and regardless of how many people died from this job, (between 600 and 2200 of them died due to fatigue, inadequate food, lack of medical aid, etc.), they were still treated horribly by the government.


After the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Government of Canada at the time imposed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885. To discourage immigration from China and encourage immigration from Europe, the act demanded a head tax of $50 for every Chinese person who wanted to immigrate to Canada. $50 in 1885 is worth $1,376.56 today. In the year of 1900, the head tax was raised to $100, which is $2,753.13 in 2021. And then, it was raised to $500 in 1903, which is $13,765.67 today. These head taxes greatly reduced the rate of Chinese immigration in that time period, which was a huge problem for the relatives of Chinese-Canadians living in China as they were not able to reunite with their family members living in Canada, many of whom were brought here to work on the railway. In addition to these head taxes, the Electoral Franchise Act of 1885 prohibited all Canadians of Chinese descent from voting in federal elections. The head tax was finally abolished in 1923, but as a replacement, on July 1, 1923, the Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act. It is most typically referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” because it narrowed down the approved requirements of Chinese immigrants, which greatly restricted their admission into Canada. This act was repealed in 1947, but during those 24 years in between 1923 and 1947, less than 50 Chinese people were allowed to immigrate to Canada. On June 22, 2006, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the head tax to Canadians of Chinese descent in the House of Commons, but it still remains an unforgotten and ingrained part of Canadian history.


Another significant historical event of racism targeting Asian-Canadians was the implementation of Japanese internment camps during WWII. Before WWII, specifically between the years of 1877 and 1928, there was a big immigration wave of Japanese immigrants arriving in Canada, mainly in British Columbia and Alberta. There were around 23,000 Canadians of Japanese descent living there by the 1930s. During World War II, the Government of Japan became a member of the Axis Alliance and bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After Japan’s entry into the war, more than 22,000 Japanese-Canadians were forcibly removed from their houses and put into internment camps due to “military necessity” from the War Measures Act. These Japanese-Canadians were first held in livestock barns in Hastings Park and then put into hurriedly-built camps called “interior housings centres” in British Columbia. Many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps alongside the British Columbia/Alberta border and in Ontario. Even small towns in B.C., such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver, and Slocan, became internment quarters for women, children, and the aged. Because of labour shortages, some families agreed to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba to remain together.


Anyone who resisted or challenged this policy was arrested by the RCMP and put into a barbed-wire prison camp in Angler, Ontario. The government during that time even sold the property owned by Japanese-Canadians to auctioneers and realtors because it was classified as “Custody of Alien Property.” After the end of WWII, the Canadian government gave Japanese-Canadians the option to either leave British Columbia and move east of the Rocky Mountains or get deported to Japan. Therefore, many of them decided to move to Ontario, Quebec, or the Prairie Provinces; others were deported. Around 4000 people were deported, half of whom were Canadian-born and one third of whom were under the age of 16. The treatment of Japanese-Canadians during and after WWII is incredibly disheartening and repulsive, especially considering that so many Japanese-Canadians risked their lives to fight in the Canadian army during the war. Many of them even died for our freedom while doing so, just to have their people thrown into internment camps and/or get deported to Japan.


On September 22, 1988, Japanese-Canadian survivors and their families received a formal apology from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the House of Commons. The Government of Canada gave out a $300 million compensation package, which included $21,000 for each of the 13,000 survivors, $12 million for a Japanese community fund, and $24 million to create a Canadian race relations to ensure that this horrible event in history never happens again. This apology was well-deserved and desperately needed by Japanese-Canadians due to how inhumane their people were treated in the internment camps.


The Komagata Maru was another horribly racist incident in Canadian history. First of all, South Asian immigration to Canada began in the late 1800s, when many Sikhs from Punjab came to British Columbia to work in lumber, mining, railway, and agriculture industries. By the early 1900s, these people and their increasing communities experienced a lot of racial hostility from white Canadians. In 1908, Canada banned immigration from India. Then, in that same year, the government also set up a “continuous journey” regulation to the Immigration Act. This allowed immigration officers to block anyone who did not come to Canada by continuous journey from the country of origin. Through another regulation, immigration officers were able to turn away any Asians who arrived without a sum of $200. This created a significant barrier from South Asia as trips from most regions included stops elsewhere. This regulation also made it impossible for South Asians who were British subjects to immigrate to Canada.


Fortunately, in the November of 1913, a judge overruled an order to deport 38 Punjabi Sikhs that had come to Canada on a ship via Japan, called the Panama Maru. These people had not come through continuous journey from India and were not carrying the required amount of money. The judge found fault with both regulations and ruled them inconsistent with the Immigration Act and allowed these passengers to land. This greatly encouraged the sailing of the Komagata Maru in April 1914. Sadly, in January of 1914, this immigration policy had changed again and the continuous journey regulation and $200 requirement was set forth. The Komagata Maru set sail for Vancouver from Hong Kong with at least 337 Sikhs, around 27 Muslims, and about 12 Hindus who were all from elite landowning village families rather than lower status groups. These passengers were independent and self-financed people who had served either in the army or in the police of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and other British outposts in East Asia. Due to their lack of English-speaking ability, they had come to Canada prepared to work outdoor labour jobs.


When the Komagata Maru had arrived in Canada, specifically in Vancouver, B.C. in May of 1914, only twenty returning residents and the ship’s doctor were allowed entry into Canada. The others were confined to their ship. Gurdit Singh, the chief spokesperson for the passengers, had confronted immigration officers with these passengers, explaining that many passengers had lawyers that could argue for their case. Instead, the immigration officers decided not to listen to the passengers and to limit their communications with the outside world, while blocking their attempts to take this case to the Canadian court. They refused to supply the ship with food and water and once attempted to take control of the boat through the use of a police boarding party. Eventually, after a month, there was an agreement to take the case to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. It was ruled against the passengers of the Komagata Maru and they were set to return back to Hong Kong. The journey back was delayed by a few weeks, but eventually on July 23, 1914, they left. After a long delay in Japan, where some passengers left, 321 passengers continued their journey to the Indian port of Budge Budge (near Kolkata) and arrived there on September 29, 1914. The British officials that were handling the passengers got into a clash, killing 20 passengers, because they tried to force them onto a specially commissioned train onto Punjab. Others who resisted this were put into a prison in Kolkata until the Indian government let them go. These passengers had gained a reputation as violent revolutionaries by the general public and in some minds of Indian politicians until after WW1, when the fight for Indian independence from the British strengthened, and the passengers’ side of the story became heard.


This continuous journey regulation was discontinued in 1947, but it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s when racial and national restrictions were removed from Canadian immigration regulations. Thus, the number of immigrants from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (then called East Pakistan) greatly increased. And, on May 28, 2016, the Government of Canada formally apologized for the Komagata Maru incident to the victims and their relatives in the House of Commons.


Many activists during the time periods of the aforementioned events had fought hard against these acts, laws, and injustices. Their actions didn’t go to waste.



Progress We’ve Made:


After reading through these historical events, it might seem horrifying that they were even allowed to happen in the first place, especially in a country as multicultural and as welcoming as Canada. It is important to learn about the racist anti-Asian aspects of Canadian history, but it is also important to accept that as a country, and as a society, we’ve made progress. A huge example of this progress was gaining the right to vote. Ever since the Dominion Elections Act of 1920, an act that excluded Asians (among other groups of people) from being allowed to vote in federal elections due to their race, was repealed by the government in 1948, Canadians of Asian descent have been able to vote in elections. Obviously, it needs to be acknowledged that not all Canadians were able to vote in 1948. It wasn’t until 1960, when every Canadian, regardless of their race and gender was able to vote in federal elections, but progress is still progress.


In the present day, Canada has also garnered a stellar reputation of being a multicultural country that welcomes immigrants and refugees, alike. This can be shown throughout the latter half of the 20th century and throughout the 21st century. It became especially apparent throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when Canada was a country that participated in the resettlement of people from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This was because after the Vietnam War ended, there was a lot of political oppression and poverty that led people from the region to emigrate to Canada. The ones fleeing Vietnam used boats to arrive here, while people leaving Cambodia and Laos did so over land. Around this time period, the Canadian government was in the midst of implementing the Immigration Act of 1976, which would allow more refugees to come to Canada by exempting them from the point-system that potential immigrants have to go through.


One important event from this time was the Hai Kong incident. In the October of 1978, a ship called Hai Kong was sailing from Vietnam with around 2,500 refugees and was hit by a typhoon. The ship was severely damaged and could not continue sailing and the passengers on the ship were rapidly running out of food supplies. The Government of Canada was the first to offer refuge to these people. In addition to that, the Canadian government accepted around 200,000 Vietnamese, Cambodia, and Laotian refugees, which is the highest rate per capita in relation to other countries. On November 13, 1986, the Nansen Medal was awarded to Canada by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And, in 2015, the Parliament passed the Journey to Freedom Day Act, which officially designated April 30th, as a national day of commemoration of the exodus of Vietnamese refugees and their acceptance in Canada.


This effort to take in refugees fleeing the Vietnam War was similar to how Canada decided to take in Asian refugees fleeing Uganda due to Idi Amin’s expulsion order. Canada accepted around 8,000 Ugandan Asians from the years 1972 and 1974.


Furthermore, Canada also took in Iranian immigrants in the 1980s, due to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. There were already a small number of Canadians with Iranian heritage living in Canada during the 1950s and 1960s, but immigration greatly increased in the 1980s as the majority of them came here to escape political or religious persecution. In the 2016 census report, it was noted that there are now 170,755 Canadians of Iranian descent now living in Canada, mainly in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C.


Recently, the Government of Canada and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHRC) began Operation Syrian Refugees (OSR). Between November 4, 2015 and 2016, Canada resettled 26, 166 Syrian refugees and as of October 31, 2020, 44,620 Syrian refugees have been resettled in Canada. And, in the 2016 census, Statistics Canada reported 77,050 Canadians of Syrian descent.


There are many other instances in the past where Canada has taken in Asian immigrants and refugees, which is in effect, completely opposite to the horribly racist policies from the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s. This just goes to prove that change takes time and that Asians have always been an integral part of Canadian history.



Successful Asian-Canadians:


There are so many Asian-Canadians that are succeeding in various different fields and industries. Asian-Canadians are thriving in the arts industries, in academic industries, in sports industries, and in politics.


Here are a few of the many successful Asian-Canadians in the arts: Sandra Oh (actress), Deepa Mehta (award-winning filmmaker), Simu Liu (MCU star), Chan Hon Goh (ballet dancer), Maitreyi Ramakrishan (actress), Rupi Kaur (poet), Juliette Kang (child prodigy, violinist), Manny Jacinto (actor), Qais Ulfat (singer), Belly (rapper), S.K. Ali (author), Roy Miki (poet, author), Jon Kimura Parker (pianist), Regula Quereshi (ethnomusicologist, scholar of Urdu and Hindi language and literature), Kerri Sakamoto (author), Shyam Selvadurai (author), and Zaib Shaikh (actor, writer, director).


Here are some successful Asian-Canadians in law and science: Dr. Theresa Tam (Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer), Payam Akhavan (lawyer and professor), Margaret Gee (first Chinese-Canadian woman to become a lawyer in British Columbia), Dr. Tak Wah Mak (renowned scientist in the fields of microbiology and immunology), Wally Opal (lawyer), David Suzuki (scientist and science broadcaster), and Kew Dock Yip (first Canadian lawyer of Chinese descent).


Here are some of many successful Asian-Canadian athletes: Patrick Chan (figure skater, Olympic gold medalist), Sudarshan Gautam (first individual without arms to climb Mount Everest without the use of prosthetics), Carol Huynh (Olympic gold medalist, wrestler), Gilmore Junio (World Cup gold medalist, skater), Larry “King” Kwong (first non-white player in the National Hockey League), Brian McKeever (first Canadian athlete to be named to both the Paralympic and Olympic teams, has 13 gold medals), Emily Nishikawa (Olympic skier), Graham Nishikawa (Olympic skier), and Tsubota (Olympic skier).


Here are some successful Asian-Canadians in politics: the Honourable Bardish Chagger (Minister of Diversity and Inclusion, MP), the Honourable Maryam Monsef (first Canadian of Afghan descent to be elected as an MP and the first Muslim to serve as a federal Cabinet Minister), the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson (26th Governor General of Canada), Naranjan Singh Grewall (first Indian-Canadian mayor of any city in Canada), Douglas Jung (first Canadian of Asian descent to be elected to the Parliament), the Honourable Norman L. Kwong (Alberta’s first Lieutenant Governor of Asian descent and first Canadian of Chinese descent to play in the Canadian Football League), the Honourable David See Chai-Lam (British Columbia’s 25th Lieutenant Governor), Senator Vivienne Poy (first Canadian of Asian descent to be appointed to the Senate), Conrad Santos (first Canadian of Filipino descent to be elected into office in Canada), and Jagmeet Singh (leader of NDP party). In our current term of government, Asian-Canadians make up 12.8% of MPs!


As you may now know, there are so many successful Asian-Canadians in so many different fields and I’m sure there will certainly be more of us to come!



What next?


Asian Heritage Month has come to an end. Hopefully, everyone has taken this month to learn about the history of Asian-Canadians, combat anti-Asian racism, and appreciate the many diverse cultures of Asia. There is still so much history to learn that was not mentioned in this article. There are many books, documentaries, and websites on the internet that can help with finding information. And, it’s no lie that Asian-Canadians still have our challenges. There still continues to be rampant racism throughout our society, whether it be deadly hate crimes or annoying microaggressions.


Presently, the ESEA (East and Southeast Asian) community is hurting due to the false blame others have put on them for the coronavirus pandemic. To help, everyone can call out racism when we see it, protect others from racist people, attend protests if possible, and donate money to charities working towards stopping Asian Hate. The Asian Solidarity Fund from CanadaHelps is a great organization to donate to. Here is the link: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/asian-solidarity-fund/


Finally, appreciating Asian cultures can just be as simple as reading books written by Asian authors, watching movies and tv shows written and/or directed by Asians, and admiring artwork made by Asians. It can be learning about the different Asian languages, cultures, and traditions. For Asians living in Canada, it would be great to reconnect with our cultures through family or by any other means.


That’s all for this May. May of 2022, see you soon!






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