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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality
The Asian Dimension in Canada

Audrey Kobayashi,
Queen's University, Kingston

When asked to speak about Asian Canadians, I am always torn between an optimistic view that celebrates their accomplishments and admirable qualities, and a more pessimistic view in which the positive experiences are overshadowed by the intense racism that has structured the lives of Asian Canadians, as well as all Canadians of colour and First Nations peoples in Canada.

This tension is a result of many things: The experience of Asians in Canada is extremely varied, and moreover varies from one group to another, and one individual to another; therefore it is not possible to generalize about some monolithic notion of Asian Canadians, who are all rich, all educated, or in the less flattering stereotypes, over-endowed or under-endowed with some moral quality.

The tension also comes from the fact that no matter how much racism a community has endured, racism is never the whole story. It is too easy when faced with the brute force of racist history, to forget about all that has been accomplished in spite of it, and the many ways that people have resisted and overcome.

But, I do want to focus on that racist experience today, because I think it's very important and because it's so much a part of our heritage. I want to try and capture some of those contradictions and recognize both the remarkable presence of Asians in Canada, but also the ways in which they have challenged the very notion of what Canada means.

My main point is that racism changes and, whereas we need to understand the past in order to make sense of today's circumstances, it is a mistake to understand that past in light of past definitions.

Today's racism is much more subtle, and it is based more on stereotyping and upon unquestioned assumptions, than it is upon direct racist actions and bigotry.

Therefore, I prefer to talk about racialization.

I'll just introduce that term, because it may not be a familiar one: To indicate a process whereby people are sorted into categories that strongly influence their experiences, rather than about the more blunt and in many minds limited term of racism.

The history of Asian Canadians is older than the nation, and resentment against them is deeply rooted in Canadian institutions.

I'll begin with just a few highlights.

Early Asia Pacific relations were established between the aboriginal peoples of British Columbia and Asian fishers, but that is largely ignored in history books.

Chinese Canadians were imported like chattels to build the transnational railway; used and abused, so that one railway worker died for every foot of railway that was forged through the Rocky Mountains while, of course, many white businessmen became very rich.

The cost was justified in the interest of achieving the National Dream, as Pierre Berton has told us. My question is, whose national dream?

When Canada was finished with the railway workers, the government imposed the Oriental Exclusion Act, or the infamous Head Tax, which not only made immigration nearly impossible but effectively shut out women and made it impossible for Chinese Canadians to have the kind of family- based community that other Canadians had; thereby, as well, allowing them to draw the charge of being immoral and uncivilized and possibly not even human.

Margaret mentioned the Komagata Maru incident, which illustrates the extent to which Canadians were willing to [go] to prevent another Asian group from getting a foothold: The Sikhs; and again illustrated the way that Canadians had been willing to deny humanity to those deemed other than the mainstream on the basis of skin colour.

Until the recent past Asians were deemed to be fit to do all that was dirty, dangerous, demeaning and degrading and to do it at lower wages than those of white workers on the grounds that their needs were few, their sensitivities were less acute and their moral quality less deserving.

And it was just such a justification that allowed the Canadian government, with very strong public support, to uproot Japanese Canadians during the 1940s, forcibly confine them to internment camps, dispossess them of all human and civil rights, confiscate virtually all of their property and possessions and contravene the Geneva Convention which, of course, wasn't written yet, so I guess that's okay, by making them pay for their own subsistence throughout the process.

And that justification allowed the government to use the War Measures Act to extend those conditions until 1949, four years after the end of the war.

During that time over 4,000 people, most of them born in Canada, were deported to a foreign country; if that's not an oxymoron — Japan.

So, what are we to make of this history today?

I think's important to recognize that however we may deplore or condemn the past, racism is not an anomalous departure from accepted practice. These events occurred as part of the normal course of Canadian history and that's a very, very important point — as part of the accepted moral code. That means that they were condoned by ordinary, normal, good Christian Canadians.

So, we need to understand racism — not in some revisionist historical terms of today — but as part of the every day social discourse through which culturally accepted practices become negotiated and are established and maintained.

World War II was certainly an important turning point in Canadian history for many reasons.

It was fought, of course, in the name of overcoming discrimination; highly ironic for Japanese Canadians. But it was after World War II that Mackenzie King said that we must be careful not to change the character of the Canadian population by altering its "face," by allowing too many Asians and other people of colour to immigrate into the country.

We inched forward from that time to the 1960s, when the racist basis for immigration discrimination was removed, through the 1970s where we created the institutional basis for human rights in this country and established by the 1970s the previously fairly foreign concept of equality for all citizens.

By the 1980s, we had repudiated most of our institutional racist past, although maybe at practices. And, of course, we were the first country to adopt an official multiculturalism policy and our repatriated Constitution contains a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which I think leads the world in its concern for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised.

In the 1990s we are beginning to recognize that civil and political rights have no meaning without the economic, social and cultural rights and that development provides great hope for Canada.

So, I'm very proud of what Canada has accomplished in recent decades. And I'm very proud that we're in a position now to fine-tune our notion of democracy and our notion of what constitutes civil society and what's appropriate within it.

So, please take the rest of comments tonight as fine tuning, rather than an attack upon my own country.

Of course we continue to experience racism in some of the brutal and blatant ways we did in the past, but for the most part it's not outright bigotry; it's very subtle and it's couched in very sophisticated language.

We pay lip service, for example, to employment equity policies but we fail to come to terms with the way in which people are enculturated into specific niches within the workplace and, therefore, employment equity notwithstanding it's very difficult to attain mobility for people of colour within the workforce.

In Markham, public debate over the acceptability of commercial enterprises owned predominantly by Chinese Canadians is phrased in terms of appropriate zoning regulations.

In Vancouver, Chinese Canadians are accused of violating good taste — I might ask, whose good taste? — and neighbourliness by building so-called 'monster houses'. They are accused of driving Canadians out of the property market by bidding up house prices. I might also ask, who are Canadians? But the houses in question are not occupied solely by Chinese Canadians.

The property market in Vancouver is more susceptible to East-West movement of the population, than it is to migration from Hong Kong. And the perception that all Chinese Canadians are wealthy and live in big houses is very easily refuted. If any of you are from Vancouver go into a supermarket or a restaurant, and look at who is doing the cooking, the cleaning and serving.

Maybe they're people who live in big houses and drive Mercedes Benzes and do it just for fun.

I could go on with all the things I hear. All Asians are bad drivers; Asian business people cannot be trusted; they work too hard; they push their children too hard in school and create unfair competition for Canadian children.

I've also heard that all former Hong Kong police officers are corrupt, and that kids from southeast Asia all belong to gangs. Sometimes these statements are made with a kind of awe and quick claims of admiration about how, actually, very clever they are, but at the same with contempt and fear.

One of the arguments I hear very frequently is that racism is not only a white phenomena, but also occurs within Asian and other communities of colour as well.

Well, of course it does; partly because no group is immune from its own prejudices — certainly colour doesn't make one immune from them — and partly because a racialized context begets racism throughout the society and that's one of the reasons it's so powerful and so dangerous.

So, why should we be concerned about these sort of minor ways in which racism is expressed?

I think we need to pay attention to how people are racially sorted; how they're assigned a place and given value in our society. And we need to pay attention to the fact — and I want to really emphasize this — that for people of colour, no matter what their experience, it is always racialized. You always confront the world with that face.

So, countering the trend is not just about proving that Asians are not rich, that no Asian kids belong to gangs, and that all retired police officers from Hong Kong are straight as arrows. Those claims wouldn't be true; but neither would they be true for white people.

So, two things about this are disturbing:

One is that it is so broadly assumed that whatever is Asian is different from the normal standard of what is Canadian.

The second point is that when white people fall into these dubious categories, they do so as individuals, not as members of groups.

So, an ordinary youth gang is somehow difference from an Asian gang. And a crooked white cop is crooked, not by virtue of whiteness, but because of some deviation from the norm while, of course, a Hong Kong cop or a bad Asian driver are part of something that constitutes Asian badness.

The common stereotypes are naturalized, so that Asian Canadians have always had to overcome the stereotypes before they can act normally. That's a big weight to carry around. And it's not normal or natural for Asian people to be rich, so when they do show signs of wealth they are more resented and there is a stronger tendency to assume that their wealth must be ill-gotten.

The stereotypes are not always negative.

Recently in the midst of a very successful dinner party at which I had served sushi, a close friend turned to me and with greatest sincerity informed me how much she admired my culinary skills, because she only knew how to cook Canadian food. My friend wasn't racist and there's a world of difference between a negative stereotype and a positive stereotype — but it was still a stereotype.

In a few seconds she had made it very clear that the food that has been a normal part of my eating since the time that I was born is not only different; it's not Canadian.

I don't think she had any sense of how deeply that hurt.

Those of you who have seen Sonny Yi's wonderful film will have recognized the very complex conditions faced by the family in that film.

On the one hand they face what seem in many ways to be universal issues about the generation gap, about problems of communicating within a family. But they do so under tremendous pressure because they are simultaneously marginalized into the particular niche occupied by Korean Canadian variety store owners, and at the same time pressured to change — to become Canadian.

But, exactly what Canadian is, is not clearly specified, except that the Baks are not it.

So, the issue is not just about overcoming stereotypes. Stereotypes are difficult to overcome, because they usually represent only the most extreme expression of ideas that are commonly, but less vehemently held, and stereotypes are effectively reinforced in many ways; in the media, in cultural activities

The smallest and most innocuous stereotypes are the basis, though, for a much larger process I've called racialization, by which certain groups are designated as different and, therefore, never fully part of the institutions of the country.

And by overcoming stereotypes, therefore, what we need to do is to overcome the more enduring notions that support the European standard as the standard for what defines Canadians. So, this is an issue about whiteness, not Asianess.

This means addressing the subtle ways that we negotiate what is culturally acceptable; how we define citizenship, both officially and unofficially; how we collectively imagine the ideal of a Canadian citizen; how we identify the people who deserve our support — the people we're willing to vote for in political office, who we trust, who we call friends and who we feel that we have a common understanding with.

And at the current rate of immigration, the Asian standard is one that is going to become a reality; has already very much become a reality in Vancouver and to a large extent in Toronto.

But the question is whether this means adding another solitude to the Canadian mosaic, or finally taking the concept of multiculturalism seriously. And that means following on

Trudeau's statement that Canada has no official culture.

While we have no official culture, but our unofficial cultural is very ethnocentric and often very inflexible.

Some would argue that the increasing rate of inter-marriage and other Canadians is a sign of overcoming racism and positive assimilation. But, this notion begs the question: Assimilation to what? And that's my big question tonight.

If it were not for the heritage in which the norm of assimilation is assumed to be, if not British — right on; then at least European; then the concept of assimilation couldn't even be thought, couldn't even be a concept.

So, consider the idea that assimilation might conform to an Asian norm, instead. And I suggest that idea would strike most Canadians as extremely peculiar and many Canadians as deeply threatening.

And for this reason I am deeply disturbed when I read the work of writers, such as Neil Bissoondath, who claim that the time for clinging to old notions of multiculturalism is over and that we should all think of ourselves as simply Canadian.

I would be much more accepting of such an idea were I not absolutely sure that only certain types of Canadians qualify to represent the dominant norm and that norm is not yet Asian.

Let me end with one more example of how the dominant norm is communicated in everyday discourse.

I am personally quite proud of the fact that I am of mixed racial heritage, Japanese and British — Welsh, as my mother says. I celebrate the fact that I can make choices and there is something very appealing about mongrelism, as Salman Rushdie has written about.

But not a week goes by in which I am not asked about my heritage; perhaps not even a day goes by, because persons of mixed racial backgrounds are still very rare in Canada, at least in my age.

And inevitably, that question — after peering into my eyes — is followed by the statement that, given my surname, it must have been my mother who was Canadian. Well, what was my father?

The frequency of this experience, happening over and over again, is a constant reminder to me that the image of the ordinary Canadian is not Asian.

And this enduring fact of life in Canada provides the possibility for more immediate and more blatant racism.

So, I look forward to the day when inter-marriage is not even an issue, because the concept of race has ceased to divide and create difference among human beings. And I look forward to the day when assimilation is no long an issue, not because everyone will have assimilated to a European norm — or even Asian norm, for that matter — but because we no longer think of the process as one gaining and losing culture.

And I look forward to the day when being Canadian has no colour and being Asian also means being an ordinary Canadian. That day will come, I hope, when we get past the hype that Canada is no longer a racist society; when we address the reality that racism continues to regulate the lives of Asian Canadians and, therefore, regulates the lives very strongly of all other Canadians as well.

And I think if we're eventually able to see past race as a marker for human difference, I believe that we, in fact, do have a very strong hope for the future.