Steven Ngo had stopped at a traffic light in a residential neighbourhood in the eastern part of Vancouver when passengers in another car tossed garbage at him, shouting racial slurs as they sped off.
The lawyer, a lifelong resident of the city, was stunned – but not surprised.
“The racism has never been as overt and apparent,” said Ngo. “I’ve never seen it so brazen.”
Over the last year, Vancouver, a cosmopolitan metropolis set between mountains and ocean, has experienced a 717% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. The grim figures, which experts believe underreport the problem, reflect a legacy of discrimination in a city and country widely seen as welcoming of newcomers.
Since the coronavirus first reached Canada last year, Asian residents across the country have reported a dramatic surge in hate incidents, ranging from racist abuse to attacks with weapons. A young Montreal man was blinded in March by a group who attacked him with military-grade pepper spray. In Toronto, police say the number of reported hate crimes has doubled over the last year.
But with 98 reported cases over the last year – more than all US cities combined – Vancouver was recently dubbed the “anti-Asian hate crime capital of North America”.
The city’s proximity to major cities across the Pacific has made it a popular landing point for recent immigrants for generations. But upon arrival, many have faced discrimination.
“The government promotes Canada as a multicultural and diverse country, an idea that’s been ingrained in our psychology since we were in school,” said Ngo. “But when you start seeing friends and family who are getting hurt, you start to wonder how accurate that narrative is.”
His cousin was recently spat on while running in a park. His mother, who works at a dim sum restaurant, says her clients are all afraid to go for walks.
“They’re bringing pepper spray with them in their purse, or bear spray,” said Ngo. “What kind of country are we where people need to bring bear spray when they go out for a walk?”
The attacks have made headlines in recent months, but residents say they reflect a spillover of longstanding discrimination.
After using Chinese workers to finish a transnational railway, Canada halted immigration from China. During the second world war, Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry were detained in internment camps.
Even seemingly benign policies, like British Columbia’s “foreign buyers tax”, meant to cool real estate prices, was widely seen as targeting Asian buyers, despite little evidence implicating them in the surge in housing prices.
“Living with the anticipation of when something might happen to you, or worse, when something might happen to your parents – it’s very stressful,” says Ellen, who asked to use only her first name. “I feel like I’m just waiting for the phone call. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. You’re kind of always bracing for that impact.”
Ellen, the co-founder of project 1907 – a reference to the city’s infamous anti-Asian riots that led to widespread property damage – has worked with the Vancouver Asian Film Festival to launch Elimin8hate, an online campaign and reporting platform for racist experiences. Since April 2020, the project has mapped a portion of the 1,500 submissions, many of which the police wouldn’t consider a hate crime.
In addition to frustration that there is little police can do when a person is spat or coughed on, Ngo says the reporting process also left him confused.
After waiting on the phone for nearly half an hour, he went to the Vancouver police website, only to find that he could only submit a hate crime report in simplified Chinese.
“There’s this perception that only the Chinese community are affected by anti-Asian racism. I’m part Cantonese, part Vietnamese. It means only one part of me can report it – the other part can’t,” he said. “At the same time, why wasn’t it in English? It just didn’t make sense.”
Vancouver police said the Chinese forms were developed in response to the “drastic increase” in hate crime and incidents targeting Vancouver’s east Asian community specifically.
“However, we heard from the public that they would like the forms in other Asian languages as well,” the police said.
Residents can now report hate crimes in traditional and simplified Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean, Punjabi, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
“The social histories of these groups called ‘Asian Canadian’ are a pretty wide span,” said Andy Yan, director of the city program at Simon Fraser University. He pointed to recent media coverage of hate crimes that seem to single out the Chinese Canadian community in Vancouver, even though a wide range of communities has been affected by the spike in assaults.
Trixie Ling, founder of Flavours of Hope, a non-profit social enterprise that supports newcomer refugee women, called for a broader conversation around systemic racism in the city.
“The conversation needs to go beyond the Asian community [that’s] now in the public eye,” said Ling, who was recently assaulted by a man who spat on her and yelled racial and sexual slurs.
“But I want to see more than just talk. Words without action are meaningless. [The conversations] need to be translated to action and accountability,” she said. “It’s not just about interpersonal racism, it’s the systems and structures that are in place that perpetuate it.”