Asian Heritage Month: Continuing a Legacy of Greatness

May 25, 2022

May is Asian Heritage Month, recognizing and celebrating the many ways in which Canadians of Asian heritage have helped shape our communities for over 200 years.

This year is the 20th anniversary of observing Asian Heritage Month in Canada and the theme is “Continuing a Legacy of Greatness,” which recognizes a legacy of contributions established by the unique and diverse identities of Canadians of all Asian descent.

From the multitude of languages to the richness of culture to the diversity of faith and religion, the vibrance of our Canada today reflects the stories of generations of Asian Canadian families, new immigrants and their communities across the country.

Asian heritage in Alberta has roots in many forms. For example, the history of Sikhs in the province dates back to before Alberta became a province in 1905 — a history “documented for the first time” through the Southern Alberta Sikh History Project in 2018 by a Mount Royal University professor in Calgary. Similarly, the Japanese Experience in Alberta was “designated a national historic event in 2007.” The designation recognizes the settlement of Japanese migrant labourers in Alberta during the early 1900s, a community that would later be reinforced by the arrival of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast after being forcibly removed from their homes during the Second World War. The history of Chinese Canadians in Alberta can also be traced back to the late 19th century, in 1885, with Chinatowns established by 1910 in Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.

Through immigration and refugee settlement, many Canadians of Asian heritage across a diverse expanse of Asian ethnicities call Canada home. From scholars and businesspersons to veterans and public servants, from authors and athletes to influencers and activists, the contributions of Asian Canadians across the country are many.

This year’s theme, “Continuing a Legacy of Greatness,” is as much about recognition of the contributions of the Asian Canadian community as it is about combatting anti-Asian racism.

“Since the start of the pandemic, hate crimes against Asian-Canadians have been on the rise. In a report released by Statistics Canada in July 2020, the agency wrote that the proportion of visible minorities who experienced an increase in harassment or attacks based on their race, ethnicity, or skin colour has tripled compared to the rest of the population since the start of the pandemic, however, the largest increase was seen among Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian individuals.” — CTV News article

The law itself has also played a role in discrimination against Asian Canadians. Some examples of this include:

    • Disenfranchisement laws, spanning the late 1800s to mid-1950s, that deprived Asian Canadians the right to vote;
    • The Chinese head tax, levied under the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), that severely restricted Chinese immigration to Canada after thousands of Chinese labourers toiled, and hundreds died, laying the railroads in British Columbia;
    • The passing of An Act to Amend the Immigration Act in 1908 which prohibited the landing of any immigrant who did not come to Canada by continuous journey from their native country. This led to the Komagata Maru incident in 1914 where passengers aboard the Komagata Maru, mostly Sikhs and those of South Asian heritage, were denied the ability to dock in Vancouver, British Columbia, the majority of whom were forced to return to India after enduring months of difficult conditions; and
    • The federal government’s use of the War Measures Act to intern Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, in which roughly 21,000 Japanese Canadians were forcibly removed from their homes in British Columbia and stripped of property. About 4,000 Japanese Canadians were later deported to Japan (half of whom were Canadian-born).

The Federal Government formally apologised in 1988 for the internment of Japanese Canadians, in 2006 for the Chinese head tax and Chinese Immigration Act, and in 2016 for the Komagata Maru incident.

In our own profession, we have heard accounts of discrimination faced by lawyers within this province through the Law Society’s “My Experience” Project. The Law Society has also acknowledged the existence and impact of systemic discrimination within the justice system, and we are committed to continuing our efforts to learn, to listen, to act and to lead Alberta’s legal profession by example.

In the fall of 2021, the B.C. branch of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL) premiered its documentary “But I Look Like a Lawyer” to highlight the stories of discrimination experienced by members of the Pan-Asian legal community in B.C. (inspired by the original documentary, “But I Was Wearing a Suit”, which brought awareness to the challenges faced by members of the Indigenous legal community in B.C.).

Asian Heritage Month reminds us of the diversity of perspectives, stories and backgrounds that exist among our lawyers and greater legal community — a diversity that empowers us to deliver justice in a more human, compassionate and understanding way. This month, and beyond, is about listening with a view to understand and creating safe spaces to learn and engage. It is about challenging unconscious biases with deliberate intention as we consciously create a more inclusive Canada.

Asian Heritage Month is a time for recognition, celebration, and awareness, as well as a time for action.

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