Toronto

'Stand with us': Anti-Asian racism in Canada is nothing new, communities say after Atlanta shootings

After a white gunman killed eight people — including six Asian women — in Atlanta on Tuesday night, many Asian Canadians are speaking out, calling for an end to anti-Asian racism here at home and for more to be done to protect sex workers and migrants. 

'What happened in Atlanta is not an isolated incident, but a horrific example of a large rising tide'

A white gunman was charged Wednesday with killing eight people at three Atlanta-area massage parlours in an attack on Tuesday that sent terror through the Asian American community, which has increasingly been targeted during the coronavirus pandemic. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/The Associated Press)

After a white gunman killed eight people — including six Asian women — in Atlanta on Tuesday night, many Asian Canadians are speaking out, calling for an end to anti-Asian racism here at home and for more to be done to protect sex workers and migrants. 

On Wednesday, hours after the deadly shootings, community groups across the country issued a joint news release voicing outrage and heartbreak over the killings, saying the violence at three Atlanta-area massage parlours is only a symptom of a much larger problem.

"What happened in Atlanta is not an isolated incident, but a horrific example of a large rising tide of anti-Asian racism," said the statement released by the Chinese Canadian National Council's (CCNC) Toronto Chapter, Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network and SWAN Vancouver and Toronto's Nail Technicians' Network, among other groups. 

Police have said the suspect in the shootings, Robert Aaron Long, 21, told them his actions were not racially motivated. But for Asian communities that have experienced an uptick in hate since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the violence is yet another painful blow in a pattern that's been all too familiar in recent months. 

'Frenzy' of anti-Asian racism amid pandemic

"The pandemic has seen an intensification of anti-Asian racism," said Justin Kong, executive director of the CCNC. While incidents of anti-Asian racism are nothing new, he said, COVID-19 and the blame on China as the suspected origin of the virus has escalated that racism to a "frenzy."

Officials say 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, of Woodstock, Ga., was captured hours after multiple people were killed in shootings at three Atlanta-area massage parlours. (Mike Stewart/The Associated Press)

According to a September 2020 report prepared by the CCNC in partnership with the Vancouver-based grassroots group Project 1907, Canadians have reported more anti-Asian racist incidents per capita than the U.S. since the start of the pandemic. 

In Vancouver, anti-Asian hate crimes rose by 717 per cent in the span of one year, climbing from 12 cases in 2019 to 98 in 2020, according to Vancouver Police Department numbers. 

It's not a burden that we as Asian Canadians must bear alone. I call on everybody else to stand with us and to stop this.- Jan Wong

When it comes to sex workers and migrants, Kong said that a lack of rights and stereotypes held by governments and law enforcement make these communities even more unsafe. 

A 2018 report by the Toronto-based Butterfly network's executive director, Elene Lam, surveying massage and holistic practitioners found almost half of all respondents experienced violence in their workplace, but less than seven per cent reported these incidents to law enforcement. 

The report says that's because 60 per cent of respondents had negative perceptions of police. Forty per cent said they felt officers did not respect them as workers and treated them like criminals, it said. 

More than one-third of those surveyed reported that they had been abused or harassed by bylaw enforcement or police officers, with 12 per cent reporting they were physically or sexually assaulted by law enforcement officers. 

Lack of legal protection for migrant sex workers: advocates

Alison Clancey, executive director of SWAN Vancouver, an organization that promotes the rights, health and safety of immigrant and migrant women engaged in indoor sex work, says there's little to no legal or labour protection for migrant or immigrant women working in indoor sex work in Canada. 

"Anti-trafficking laws, prostitution laws and immigration policies impede these women from coming forward to report violence," she said. Clancey's organization has served about 500 women this year.

Alison Clancey, executive Director at SWAN Vancouver, said migrant sex workers often don't turn to authorities to report violence fearing they'll become the target of a prostitution or trafficking investigation herself, or be arrested and deported under immigration policy. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
She says Asian and migrant women who engage in sex work have never been protected from discrimination, racism and violence, pointing to a Toronto massage parlour attack in February 2020 that left a 24-year-old woman dead. 

Clancey said migrant sex workers often don't turn to authorities to report violence fearing they'll become the target of a prostitution or trafficking investigation herself, or be arrested and deported under immigration policy. 

Most police officers also don't distinguish between migrant sex work and human trafficking, she said, adding that enforcement actions are often based on racist stereotypes, such as Asian women in sex work needing to be saved from their situation. 

"These women are not asking to be saved or rescued. What they are asking for is that the violence perpetrated against them be addressed in [a] way that other community members can find recourse in the criminal justice system or other legal or labour laws and protections."

WATCH |  Atlanta shooting rampage fuels fear of racially motivated attacks:

Atlanta shooting rampage fuels fear of racially motivated attacks

The National

1 month ago
2:03
A shooting rampage at three Atlanta spas killed eight people, seven of them of Asian descent and though police won’t yet call it a hate crime, it has fuelled fears across the country of more racially motivated attacks. 2:03

City bylaws often harmful for sex workers, groups say

In their joint statement, the CCNC, the Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network along with other organizations said Asian women working in massage parlours and the sex industry are often violently targeted.

"This violence is not isolated and stems from a long history of fetishizing, hypersexualizing and marginalizing Asian women. Anti-migrant and anti-sex worker legislation promote and encourage hate towards Asian migrant sex workers, labelling them as undeserving and unworthy of rights and protection," their statement reads. 

Many cities have excessive regulations against massage parlours that are often harmful and dangerous to women's physical safety, it goes on, such as prohibiting the locking of doors on individual workrooms — a bylaw in place in Toronto, for example. 

The City of Toronto said it has heard from workers in body rub parlous, where locking individual rooms is prohibited, who say they are concerned about this provision. The concerns are related to health and safety issues and fears among workers, according to the city.

"Recognizing the importance of their concerns, Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS) has suspended the enforcement of the relevant sections of the bylaw. This was done on August 28, 2020," the city said in a statement to CBC News. 

The city said it has provided grants to some community groups and partners to assess migrant sex workers' needs, develop resources for sex workers, and promote harm reduction practices for those in the industry. 

In the statement, the city also said it recognizes that Asian communities have been "scapegoated" and have been facing increasing incidents of racism and discrimination since the pandemic started. 

Meanwhile, the groups are also calling on the federal government to ensure migrant workers are granted legal status in Canada.

'Not a burden that we as Asian Canadians must bear alone'

For Jan Wong, co-founder of the Asian Canadian Women's Alliance, the responsibility to discourage and dismantle anti-Asian sentiment falls on all Canadians. 

For Jan Wong, co-founder of the Asian Canadian Women's Alliance, the responsibility to discourage and dismantle anti-Asian sentiment falls to all Canadians. (CBC)

Throughout the pandemic, Wong said she has been especially worried about getting spat on or knocked over, because "this is what has happened in Canada." 

Wong said she has been encouraged, however, to see people shutting down victim blaming on social media amid the news of the shootings.

And as investigators continue to piece together what led to the violence, she says calling out anti-Asian racism in Canada is one step in the fight to end it. 

"It's not a burden that we as Asian Canadians must bear alone," she said. "I call on everybody else to stand with us and to stop this." 

With files from Sabrina Jonas, Shanifa Nasser and Jessica Ng

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