Avvy Go was walking home from work on a summer day in Toronto last year when a group of young people blocked her route on the sidewalk.
Without a word, one person spat at her, the spittle landing at Go’s feet.
Horrified, Go yelled, “Excuse me!” but the group continued on, laughing among themselves.
“I was just taken aback. I was just stunned,” said Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. “For some of us, every time we step out, we have to worry if we will be targeted again.”
Go’s fears are common: anti-Asian racism has been growing across the country, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) Toronto chapter, which for the first time details the nature of attacks that seem to have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From verbal insults to physical assaults, including being spat upon, 643 complaints were submitted to the council’s online platforms from March 10 to Dec. 31, 2020. Overwhelmingly, these incidents were fuelled by false and racist beliefs about the spread of COVID-19, according to the study’s authors.
“In addition to the ways we know COVID transmits, the spitting and coughing symbolizes a revenge, as if an act of ‘Go back where you came from, where the virus came from,’” said Kennes Lin, a social worker and co-chair of the CCNC Toronto chapter, who was one of the report’s authors.
The document’s release comes just days after six Asian women were shot dead at multiple massage parlours in Atlanta, Ga. The March 16 killings prompted protests against anti-Asian racism in major cities in North America, including Montreal.
Canada has also witnessed an increase in anti-Asian racism. Last July, Statistics Canada reported that more than 30 per cent of Chinese Canadians perceive themselves to be at a higher risk of possible violence or harassment. In February, data released by Vancouver police showed a 717 per cent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the city last year.
While the majority of incidents in the CCNC report involved verbal harassment, close to 11 per cent of victims reported physical force being used against them and nearly 10 per cent said they were coughed or spat upon.
Notably, youth under 18 and adults age 55 and older were 233 per cent and 250 per cent more likely to be coughed and spat upon during a hate incident. Attacks described in the report range from a young child being thrown off a bicycle to an older woman being punched in the eye on public transit.
Other findings in the report include:
- About 73 per cent of those who reported incidents said they suffered emotional harm or mental distress from what occurred. About eight per cent reported physical injuries.
- Individuals who reported an incident in a Chinese language as opposed to English were 34 per cent more like to suffer emotional distress from the incident and 100 per cent more likely to have experienced a physical assault.
- Close to 50 per cent of incidents occurred in public spaces (park/street/sidewalk), while another 17 per cent took place in grocery stores or restaurants.
Though Go chose not to report the incident she experienced, as she felt nothing would come of it, hundreds of Asian Canadians have turned to community organizations like the CCNC and their partners to report racist incidents.
The council launched a web portal in March 2020 specifically because it was being inundated with calls about disturbing attacks across Canada in a way it hadn’t seen prior to the pandemic. Many said they were not comfortable reporting to law enforcement as there is a lack of trust or they feel they won’t be heard.
Another 507 hate incidents were logged on the site from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28 this year, but were not included in the analysis.
Go said the prevalence of spitting and coughing toward Asian people in Canada is due to the false, racist belief that Asian people are responsible for bringing COVID-19 to the country.
“It’s almost like this is the way of saying: You give me the virus, I’m giving it back to you,” she said. Go was one of many individuals who provided an initial review of the CCNC report.
Spitting or coughing on someone deliberately, while a deadly virus continues to devastate the population, is done not only to infect Asian Canadians, but also to follow through on a warped sense of vengeance that feeds into long-standing stereotypes around Asian people and disease, said Lin.
“It means an intense level of dehumanizing, disrespect, scorn and disregard,” said Lin.
Building the railroad in the late 19th century in Canada, Chinese migrants had to live in crowded, substandard housing that led to people falling ill, fuelling stereotypes about Asian people being “diseased.” A head tax was in place from the late 19th to early 20th centuries to deter immigration, throwing migrants into poverty before they even arrived.
Meanwhile, the British had characterized Chinese people as “full of diseases” during the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and those stereotypes rooted in colonialism show up in the hate incidents Asian Canadians are experiencing during the pandemic, said Josephine Pui-Hing Wong, a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, who specializes in health disparities.
Wong says the Atlanta shootings last week evoked memories of racist incidents she faced growing up in Canada. She recalls classmates comparing her to sexualized Asian women in western movies, or men accosting her, claiming they had an “Asian fetish.”
“(Racism) is in the Canadian psyche because for hundreds of years, white supremacy has constructed this kind of knowledge that racialized people are inferior,” she said. “But then when COVID-19 comes out, when the United States president says racist things, people feel that they’ve been given a permit to go out and be violent,” she added, referring to statements made by former president Donald Trump.
The fetishizing of Asian women and the targeting of migrant women, specifically sex workers, as some of the more vulnerable groups amid rising anti-Asian hate incidents is an element the CCNC is highlighting as well, said Kate Shao, a lawyer and board member.
The report shows about 60 per cent of the incidents have impacted Asian women. The Atlanta shootings, resulting in the deaths of Asian women, struck a chord on that data point, she said.
“There’s an additional impact that women feel, and especially women in precarious immigration status. A lot of that is heightened because of the hypersexualization, fetishization that we’ve seen,” she said, referring to the treatment of women during the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Children are also emotionally impacted by the racism they’ve experienced in schools, said Lin. The CCNC had reports of hand sanitizer being sprayed at Asian children, she said.
In the wake of the Atlanta shootings, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce released a statement acknowledging that “anti-Asian racism is on the rise” and said he’s working to curb hate incidents occurring in the school community.
The CCNC report shows that most incidents have occurred in public places. For places like local businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores, their report recommends implementing specific anti-Asian racism policies to protect employees and customers, said Shao.
It’s disheartening that the Atlanta attacks are what has caused some institutions or groups to finally speak out on anti-Asian racism, when groups like the CCNC have been speaking on it for months, she said.
In order to create their data analysis, the CCNC used one-time funding from the Canadian government that ends this month.
“We have over 1,000 reports of racism, and where do we go from there?” she asked. “There’s a lot the government needs to do to step up and fill in these gaps.”