Content warning: This article contains mentions of anti-Asian racism.
Asian Heritage Month — which has been celebrated in Canada since the 1990s — was officially announced to occur during the month of May by the Government of Canada in 2002. This national recognition of Asian Heritage Month marked an important milestone in the Asian community, by acknowledging the community’s contributions and the difficulties it has faced and continues to face.
Canada has been recognized globally for its diversity. For two centuries, immigrants and refugees from East, South, West, Central, and Southeast Asia have made contributions to Canada’s arts, sciences, literature, politics, law, and education. The Asian Canadian community has historically faced and overcome many adversities, such as the Chinese head tax, Japanese internment camps, and restrictive immigration laws. More recently, the threat of COVID-19 has created panic across the globe, with people looking desperately for answers, solutions, and responses. Since the pandemic originated from China, the Asian community has served as an easy scapegoat.
This past year, the pandemic has stirred people’s hatred toward Asians and revealed discriminatory practices against them, which has had a damaging impact. It has become much easier for people to continue scapegoating the Asian community, which has placed many members of the community in dangerous and disturbing situations. Children have been physically assaulted, the elderly have been spat on, and others have experienced discrimination in their workplaces. In this unpredictable time, Asians around the world have been attacked, blamed, and shamed for the spread of the virus. The simplest tasks — including going to the grocery store, walking on the street, and sitting on the bus — have led to incidents of anti-Asian racism.
Events such as the shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta, and MP Derek Sloan’s public questioning of Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam about working for China have demonstrated the racism that Asians face daily. While greatly disturbing, these events have acted as moments of reflection for our society to understand how detrimental it is to ignore the racism and discrimination in our communities.
It has always been important to recognize Asian Heritage Month; however, with the recent escalation in anti-Asian racism, it has become increasingly relevant to address the rise in hate incidents and demonstrate our ongoing support to the Asian community.
This month, the University of Toronto is celebrating Asian Heritage Month in light of the recent Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter report that more than 40 per cent of hate incidents that have been committed in Ontario have been targeted at East and Southeast Asian people. Recognizing the Asian community throughout the month of May is an important step to disassemble systemic racism in Canada and educate the U of T community on how to be allies.
U of T also plans to create collective healing spaces, provide resources, and offer webinars to create community awareness beginning this month. The choice to elevate the voices of Asians demonstrates the university’s acknowledgment of the contributions made by Asian and Asian-Canadian students. The university has chosen to stand in solidarity with the Asian community during these incredibly difficult times.
U of T is facilitating members of the U of T community to educate themselves on the Asian-Canadian experience and in doing so, understand the continued otherness Asians have faced during the pandemic. Moreover, U of T acknowledges the complexity of the Asian community in Canada by addressing the Southeast Asian community in addition to East Asians.
The university’s dedication to provide resources and opportunities for self-education is an important step to battle racism in the U of T community. It is an opportunity for students to learn about the harmful anti-Asian stereotypes and generalizations that are made on a subconscious and conscious level. Furthermore, this is an opportunity to better understand the diverse Asian community through personal stories and creative expression. U of T’s actions have been pivotal in reshaping the way we see the Asian community.
In the continued efforts to combat hate and racism in Canada, U of T’s words and, most importantly, actions during Asian Heritage Month are much welcomed. U of T is proactively moving from making a statement to establishing workshops and initiatives which can act as the first step to support members of our community.
Jasmin Akbari is a second-year industrial relations & human resources, digital humanities, and writing & rhetoric student at Woodsworth College.