BIPOC and Canadian Identity: An Emerging Narrative

Some Canadians are blind to racism, thinking extreme cases primarily affect our southern neighbours. Alongside the global pandemic, racism rears its ugly head in every corner of the country. In July 2020, a video circulated of an enraged white male refusing to wear a mask inside T&T, a Canadian Asian grocery chain. T&T was one of the first Canadian businesses to implement a policy where employees and patrons are required to wear face masks in the store. Countries in Asia normalize wearing masks when they fall ill, so it wasn’t a surprise when T&T adopted this measure to protect their staff and customers.

 

The situation escalated as the man aggressively screamed profanities and racist slurs towards staff and customers. At one point in the video, the white man interrogated an old Asian man within the group about where he “originally” came from. In response, the Asian man held his hands up and yelled, “I am Canadian!” Insisting he was Canadian was heartbreaking and is a brutal reality for many Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) Canadians. The CEO of T&T, Tina Lee, made a statement defending the manager’s decision to leave the store and reprimanded the man’s racist actions. 

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Earlier this month, three individuals were photographed in the midst of attacking a gay couple in Calgary, the third homophobic assault within a week. The couple was enjoying their stroll when they were suddenly physically and verbally attacked, resulting in non-life-threatening injuries and shock. Pictures circulated on Reddit and Facebook. In the comments section, people immediately sneered racial comments about deportation and labelled them as immigrants, all because of their brown skin. Individuals who knew the offenders confirmed at least one of them was Canadian born and clapped back at people’s quick racial assumptions. Racism does not negate the severity of homophobia. Infuriated with this group for intentionally harming a gay couple, I also questioned why people immediately assume that brown or black skin is the mark of an immigrant.

 

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For many first and second-generation Black and POC individuals, our citizenship status in Western countries such as Canada and the United States is regularly challenged. For example, my Dad acknowledges his Filipino roots but insists he is a Canadian citizen. Since entering Canada in the early nineties, both of my parents built their life together. Their four-year permanent residency bloomed into Canadian citizenship with official documents indicating they passed the citizenship exam almost thirty years ago. And yet, why does my Dad need to constantly assert his Canadian identity? Is it because of his thick Ilocano accent and brown skin? Is it because he doesn’t fit into the “traditional” narrative of Canadian society?

 

Suppose you were to type into Google, “what does a Canadian look like?” You’re blasted with white faces and sprinkles of BIPOC. Many factors play into the idea of equating Canadian identity with whiteness. Specifically, this view is learned in our school system. In Canadian schools, the prominent narrative is the British and French monarchies slowly exploiting a stolen land at the expense of Indigenous Peoples. Traditionally, the way Canadian history is taught is whitewashed and fails to acknowledge or deeply discuss how BIPOC shaped Canada. Indigenous stories are slowly being recognized in the education system, but still have a lengthy path ahead. If stories of Black and POC Canadians are recognized, in-depth discussions are rarely fostered in classrooms. Failing to recognize BIPOC Canadians deliberately erases them from our society’s narrative.

 

Despite our multicultural policies, Canadians are fairly unaware of Canadian BIPOC stories. Since traditional Canadian history teaches youth that white people contributed “the most” to society, being Canadian is often associated with whiteness, labelling everyone else as “foreign.” By examining one perspective of history, a monolithic narrative is sustained as the truth. This narrow view overlooks and dismisses the perseverance, grit, and positive contributions of BIPOC Canadians.

 

Our education system disservices our students, particularly BIPOC students, by focusing on the whitewashed Canadian narrative. In reality, many stories of BIPOC linger throughout Canadian history but have yet to be shared. With my Grade 5 students, we investigated different waves of Canadian immigration and the challenges various groups encountered, particularly Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s into the twentieth century. Between 1885 to 1923, the Canadian government implemented the Chinese Head Tax to control the number of Chinese immigrants flowing into the country. To this day, the Chinese are the only group of people who paid an entrance fee upon arrival in Canada. Shortly after dissolving the Chinese Head Tax, the Canadian government introduced the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese immigration altogether until 1947. Both of these laws enacted by the Canadian government promoted racism towards the Chinese.

 

Many early Chinese immigrants worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), the economic connection between Eastern and Western Canada. The CPR promoted nation-building, prevented northern American expansion, and encouraged Western settlement, yet some Canadians are unaware of the Chinese’s involvement. Starting in British Columbia, Chinese workers carved the CPR’s pathway into the mountainous BC interior, laboured long hours and were paid significantly less compared to their white counterparts on the East coast. Some Chinese workers even died due to the appalling working conditions. Most of my students were shocked, questioning the Canadian government’s actions and mistreatment of the Chinese workers. Acknowledging the Chinese’s early Canadian roots encouraged discussions on racism, broadening Canadian POC perspectives, and their contributions to society.

 

Critically examining history by educating and seeking out Canadian BIPOC narratives, fills a deprived gap in our education system. We need to normalize Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour as Canadians too because our accomplishments have benefited our society. By including these stories, a well-rounded view of history is created, one where BIPOC Canadians can see versions of themselves contributing positively. Sharing BIPOC stories informs Canadians we all have wonderful talents and skills to offer, and sparking impactful change for our communities and the world lies within us.

 

Links to Current Events Mentioned in Article:

 

T&T Supermarket Encounter and Response

Homophobic Crimes 

 

Further Learning on Chinese Immigration in Canada:

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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