The past few weeks have seen a series of Chinese Canadian protests in Toronto, as well as several other Canadian cities, demanding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other political leaders apologize for publicly condemning a reported hate crime on Jan. 12, 2018. The incident was reported by an 11-year-old girl who was allegedly assaulted by a mid-20s Asian male trying to cut off her hijab with scissors.
Within hours of the initial report, the hijab-cutting story was picked up by media. Reporters swarmed the school, looking for a scoop. The girl then was put forward to speak out in front of waiting news cameras and microphones. As news of the disturbing incident broke out, a stream of responses from elected politicians, including Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory poured out. The essence of the messaging was consistent and predictable: "We sympathize with this girl and we denounce this hate-motivated attack."
A few days after the report, the police investigating the incident concluded that the incident did not in fact happen.
Backlash to the false report was swift and virulent. Conservative media outlets, such as Rebel News, were quick to label the event as the "Hijab Hoax," which caught on with its own hashtag on social media. Some even went as far as to suggest the mother of the girl should be criminally charged.
Within the Chinese Canadian community, however, something equally problematic was happening. Certain elements in the community zeroed in on the girl's allegation of an "Asian man" as the perpetrator of the assault. Despite no further identification of the perpetrator as Chinese, the tenuous link was being made that somehow public condemnation of the alleged hate crime by elected officials was an attack on Chinese Canadians.
These vague and threatening notions of "horror" and "terror" play into and perpetuate Islamophobic stereotypes.
Despite the dangerous and questionable logic of this position, the "Hijab hoax targets Chinese Canadians" narrative caught on like wildfire within certain parts of the Chinese community. It led to street protests in cities all over Canada such as Toronto, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Vancouver.
The substance of the protests' messaging was equally troubling. For instance, in downtown Toronto, protesters carried signs that announced: "Hoax Today, Horror Tomorrow." Another sign stated that the protester was "Against Political Terror Attack." These vague and threatening notions of "horror" and "terror" play into and perpetuate Islamophobic stereotypes and ideas, and serve to normalize further discrimination and stigmatization of Muslim communities in Canada.
Another troubling sub-theme of the protests is the conflation of "Canadian values" with Islamophobic messages within the Chinese community. During parts of the Toronto protests, the Canadian national anthem was being played and signs explicitly linking the two positions could be found everywhere: from "Canadian values back!" to "All Canadians are equal."
True to form, Rebel Media reporters were quick to jump on this fortunate stroke of luck and used it to further perpetuate attacks against Muslim groups and to question the very existence of Islamophobia in Canada. The anti-Muslim "Canadian values" rhetoric has caught on to such an extent in the Chinese community that a political rally in Ottawa at Parliament Hill is even being organized later this month.
I find these recent developments in my community both terrifying and sickening.
As a Chinese Canadian myself, I find these recent developments in my community both terrifying and sickening.
Yes, the alleged attempt to cut the girl's hijab did not happen. But it was completely reasonable for communities and politicians of all stripes to be concerned about hate-motivated allegations against Muslims in Canada.
This extra sensitivity is understandable given that the alleged incident occurred close to the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 29, 2017 Quebec City Mosque Massacre — in which six Muslim Canadians were killed and 19 injured.
The killer, Alexandre Bissonnette, targeted Muslims after evening prayer — a hate-motivated terror attack of the most heinous degree. There was nothing fake about the targeting and senseless murders of those innocent people.
Chinese Canadians should also reflect on their own history of being the targets of racial discrimination and harassment. Chinese labourers were instrumental in building the all-important Canadian Pacific Railway — tasked with the most dangerous and difficult jobs such as handling explosives to blast through rock. They paid with their blood, sweat, tears and, for many of them, their lives. Yet despite this contribution, Chinese Canadians were systematically excluded and subordinated in Canadian law.
Chinese Canadians should also reflect on their own history of being the targets of racial discrimination and harassment.
Our first Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, specifically argued for the exclusion of Chinese in Canada, characterizing them as perpetual foreigners — propagating the racist narrative of "Yellow Peril."
Chinese were specifically excluded from the right to vote. Prohibitively expensive head taxes were levelled against Chinese to dissuade family reunification until Chinese Canadians were simply banned outright from immigrating with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. Racism was virulent against Chinese Canadians, and the historical legacy of those structures can still be felt within the community today. It was only after the Second World War and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act that Chinese Canadians started winning back fairer treatment under Canadian law and in Canadian society.
It is within that context that we as Chinese Canadians should understand as well as anybody the terrible effects that racial stereotypes, hate-based sentiments and societal exclusion have on minority groups. Yes, the hijab-cutting incident did not happen, but anti-Muslim sentiment in Canada continues. Stigmatization and hate-motivated incidents against Muslim Canadians continue. And if we do not stand up for those people among us who are targeted by hate now, we have nobody to blame but ourselves when we are inevitably targeted by that same hate that we are fanning today.
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Let it serve as a reminder that although it is good to strive for equality, for equal treatment, for dignity, for respect, we must ensure that we do not further marginalize other groups in our pursuit of those goals. Let us strive to understand and have respect for other communities that, at first blush, may seem different from ours, but underneath share the same common human values, hopes and dreams.
That is what Canadian values should stand for.
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