In light of the recent Atlanta spa shooting and the general prevalence of hate and violence against Asian and Pacific Islander communities, it seemed like an important time to reflect on where this hate comes from. Although many of the travesties that have caught the attention of mainstream media occurred in the United States, Canadians, too, need to recognize the prevalence of hate within our borders.
According to Project 1907, a grassroots that works to elevate underrepresented Asian voices in mainstream political, social and cultural discourse, “Canada has a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per Asian capita than the United States.” They also reported that British Columbia has the greatest number of reported incidents of any sub-national region, followed by California, New York, and Ontario. Additionally, in Vancouver, BC alone according to a report presented to Vancouver’s police board, the number of hate crimes was 280 in 2020, up from 142 the year before —an increase of 97%.
With the prevalence of anti-Asian hate being abundantly clear in Canada, you may be wondering what has perpetuated this hate and why you know so little about it. If this is the case, you aren’t alone in this questioning. The fact of the matter is, if you’re not completely sure about where this hate comes from beyond the pandemic, it’s not completely your fault because very little of it was taught to you in school.
With that in mind, here is a brief timeline of events in Canadian history that perpetuated the mentality that serves as fuel to this fire of violence and hate:
The roots of the anti-Asian movement can be found in two waves of Chinese immigration to Canada. The first wave was due to the Gold Rush in British Columbia (“BC”) in 1858 and the second was a wave of labourers who came to BC for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railroad between 1881 and 1885.
The Canadian Pacific Railroad was a promise made to British Columbia upon their entry into Confederation in 1871. And although Confederation was less than an occasion for celebration for Indigenous communities, the fact of the matter is, Canada wouldn’t be the Canada it is today for all of its pros and cons, without the contribution of Chinese labourers.
Due to difficulty putting together an adequate workforce in BC, over 17 000 Chinese workers came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway, and later maintain it. They were forced to work in dangerous conditions, were paid very little, and an estimated 600 workers died in the process. They also faced immense amounts of racism and discrimination by citizens and politicians alike.
Chinese Head Tax
Following the completion of the CPR, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was placed. This piece of legislation imposed a $50 head tax on every Chinese person seeking entrance into Canada. Chinese labourers were needed to make up the workforce, but the fact that they brought the heritage and culture with them was deemed undesirable.
In 1900, the tax was raised to $100 and in 1903, it was raised to $500. In spite of the head tax, immigrants from China continued to come to Canada.
The “Chinese Exclusion Act”
On July 1, 1923, the Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act. It is more commonly referred to as the “Chinese Exclusion Act” because it banned virtually all immigration from China to Canada. Additionally, every person of Chinese descent regardless of where they were born was required to register for an identity card within 12 months. Noncompliance carried a penalty of $500 or imprisonment. The Act was repealed in 1947 and during the time that it was in place, fewer than 50 Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada.
A formal apology was given on 22 June 2006, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the head tax and discriminatory legislation.
In the 1930s, there were approximately 23,000 Canadians of Japanese origin living in Canada. This was the product of a wave of immigration that occurred between 1877 and 1928. Immigration picked up again after 1967.
Following Japan’s entry into WWII on December 7, 1941, Canadians of Japanese descent on the West Coast were forced out of their homes. They were removed en mass and incarcerated, despite next to no evidence that they posed any threat. In 1942, under the War Measures Act, more than 21 00 Canadians of Japanese heritage were forced to leave the “restricted area” and move 100 miles inland from the West Coast. At first, many were held in livestock barns before being moved to “interior housing centres” in BC. The property of those in internment was confiscated and sold by the government.
An apology was delivered in the House of Commons in September 1988.
In 1908, the Immigration Act was amended to include the “continuous journey regulation,” which barred the landing of any immigrant who did not arrive in Canada through a continuous journey from the country in which they are citizens. This made it difficult for many South Asians because the nature of the trip from South Asia to Canada involved stops. And for individuals who were British subjects, this regulation made immigration to Canada impossible.
Restrictions on Voting Right
Most Canadians of Asian descent were barred from voting throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. In 1920, the Dominion Elections Act took federal voting rights away from people who had been barred from voting in provincial elections because of their heritage and race. This legislation targeted people of Chinese, Japanese, and South Asian heritage who were barred from voting in BC. The Dominion Elections Act was repealed in 1948.
Canadians of Asian heritage have contributed immensely to every facet of our society. They are why we have our favourite sushi restaurants, our beloved Chinatowns, and of course, “Kim’s Convenience.” So, let’s show them the love and appreciation that we feel for their contributions and stand by them as they’ve stood by all of us for generations.
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).