(Bloomberg Opinion) — American liberals often look north for a vision of what could be. Canada: land of publicly funded health care, evidence-based gun regulation and immigrant-driven multiculturalism.
These virtues are not exactly myths. The population of Vancouver, where I have been for the past several weeks, is roughly equal parts European Canadian and Asian Canadian, with each representing more than 40% of the total. But Canada is not liberal Valhalla, and Canadians, contrary to the Dudley Do-Right clichés, are not always super nice. As Americans grapple with a Covid-era spike in racist violence against Asian-Americans, there is evidence of a similar wave in Canada.
A new report, funded by the Canadian government, suggests that Canadians of Asian descent have been targeted for abuse by their countrymen. Compiled by civic groups such as the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, the report documents “anti-Asian racism across Canada one year into the Covid-19 pandemic.” From March 10, 2020 to Feb. 28, 2021, researchers recorded 1,150 anti-Asian incidents in Canada. They included physical assaults, instances of coughing or spitting on victims, and verbal harassment.
Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, told me that there were more anti-Asian incidents per capita in Canada in the past year than in the U.S. In Vancouver, police documented 98 anti-Asian hate crime incidents last year, up from 12 in 2019.
I met Ellen and Doris — they didn’t want their family names used, they said, for both safety and professional reasons — on the corner of Main and Hastings in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Years ago, someone had described the adjacent block of Hastings to me as one of the worst in North America, owing to the concentration of chronic drug use, crime and homelessness. The area continues to be squeezed by gentrification, but I didn’t notice much of a change on the block in the almost six years since I’d last visited.
Ellen and Doris are cofounders of Project 1907, which describes itself as a group of Asian women who aim to “elevate Asian voices that are underrepresented and undervalued” in mainstream discourse. “The organization was formed during Covid,” Doris said, “but we’ve been talking about this for a while.”
Indeed, Doris and Ellen, both in their 30s, made it clear that most of their experiences of racism in Canada precede Covid. “You can’t live in Vancouver without a conversation about real estate,” Ellen said. The undertow of some of those conversations is resentment over the wave of wealthy Chinese who have purchased Vancouver property over the past quarter century, a time during which affordability and homelessness have become acute public concerns. The average sales price of a home in Vancouver in March was more than $1.1 million in U.S. dollars.
While Vancouver’s foreign buyers are wealthy, many who live and work in Chinatown are not. Pender Street, which once housed an opium factory, looks like Chinatown in many North American cities — featuring grocers, a restaurant equipment and supply store, a butcher with chickens hanging in the front window.
Project 1907 takes its name from the year of a three-day rampage through this neighborhood and Vancouver’s adjacent Japantown. Known as the “anti-Asian riots,” the violence followed years of mounting resentment and anti-immigrant laws, including the Chinese Head Tax in 1885 to restrict immigration. Prominent Vancouver leaders were members of the Asiatic Exclusion League, whose anti-immigrant rally at city hall sparked the riots.
Like the U.S., Canada is reckoning, sometimes just as awkwardly, with racist history. The authors of the report on anti-Asian attacks during Covid refer to themselves as “racialized settlers” in Canada. The first sentence of the report states: “We recognize our work against racial violence takes place on stolen Indigenous land.”
Canada did not have large-scale African slavery — although it had some, partly due to British loyalists fleeing to Canada with their human property as revolution unfolded in the American colonies. Of course, Canada also did not produce cotton, rice, tobacco or sugar, the commodities around which slavery was organized in the Western hemisphere.
While Canada’s reputation as a promised land for fugitive American slaves is much celebrated, the racism many of those fugitives experienced once they arrived is less heralded. By the mid-19th century perhaps 20,000 to 40,000 Black people lived in Canada. Slavery had been abolished in 1834, but racially segregated schools, restaurants, theaters and neighborhoods were common. A theater in Windsor, Ontario, offered a segregated “crow’s nest” for Black customers, while a Montreal theater called its segregated upper balcony the “monkey cage.” The Ku Klux Klan also mustered a presence in Canada, and its terrorism was no less real there.
The history of Asian immigration to Canada is as saturated in racism as immigrant history in the U.S. Some of the language is even identical. From 1923 to 1947 in Canada, “Chinese exclusion” legislation kept Chinese immigrants out. In 1942, the Canadian government interned Japanese Canadians in camps, just as the U.S. did to its Japanese citizens. On the whole, Asians in Canada today are more likely to live in poverty than Asians in the U.S.
Still, Canada is Canada. The national government has remained very supportive of immigration — to the detriment of U.S. companies competing for talent. And in 2016, while their mother country and southern neighbor were descending into anti-immigrant embarrassments, Canadians kept their heads.
American liberals’ occasional threats to move to Canada, in the event some Republican or other is elected president, are almost always hollow. But that doesn’t discount their admiration for what New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik once called “our northern neighbor’s relative lack of violence, its peaceful continuity, its ability to allow double and triple identities and to build a country successfully out of two languages and radically different national pasts.”
Making amends for those not-so-radically different pasts entails similar pursuits on either side of the border. In 2018, Canada put the image of Viola Desmond on the $10 bill. Desmond is a northern Rosa Parks, a Black Canadian who in 1946 refused to leave the Whites-only section of a movie theater in Nova Scotia. She is the first Black woman on Canadian currency. In the U.S., meanwhile, Harriet Tubman is still waiting for her long-delayed bill. What that says about the exchange rate of racism is hard to know.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.