Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the frequency at which respondents to the survey say they have been attacked physically.
Asian communities in Canada have reported name-calling, insults and outright assaults since the novel coronavirus pandemic began.
And according to a survey from the Angus Reid Institute, done in partnership with the University of Alberta, the problem is widespread.
In an online survey conducted between June 15 and 18, researchers at the Angus Reid Institute and University of Alberta asked 516 Canadians of Chinese ethnicity about their experience with racism during COVID-19.
Half of them indicated being called names or insults as a direct consequence of the outbreak, while 43 per cent said they have faced threats or intimidation.
“Since March 2020, I have been repeatedly yelled at on the sidewalk in my own neighborhood,” said one person who took part in the survey, according to the Angus Reid Institute.
“I have had my citizenship questioned despite my response stating that I was born in Canada when chatting with others.”
University of Alberta-based Kimberly Noels, a psychology professor who was head researcher on the study, said she believes all Canadians should be paying attention to the results.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind how hurtful these incidents are,” Noels said.
“That some of the accounts that people give us — about being spoken to disrespectfully, being insulted, being spit at — these are all very hurtful, and the Chinese community is working hard to support people through this.
Shachi Kurl, executive director at the Angus Reid Institute, said it was important to establish solid data on the incidents of harassment, violence and threats reported by people of Chinese and East Asian descent in Canada during the pandemic.
“You understand that it’s happening, but you don’t have a sense of how much it’s happening,” she said.
“We now know and understand just how widespread it’s been. And we also have a sense of what the impact has been on the psyche of these members of our community.”
Thirty per cent said they have been frequently exposed to racist graffiti or social media posts ever since the pandemic began in March.
Close to 30 per cent said they have often been made to feel as if they are a threat to the health of other people.
People reported changing their everyday lives in response to the increased discrimination, with six in 10 people indicating they have tweaked their daily routines to avoid any potentially unpleasant encounters.
A little over half the respondents also worried that Asian children will face bullying linked to the coronavirus pandemic once schools resume.
Kurl said researchers wanted to find out how often incidents of racism, harassment or intimidation are happening and how many people are experiencing them.
“It is happening to a lot of people and it’s happening quite frequently,” she said.
“There’s two narratives, without data, you don’t know which narrative is correct,” she explained.
“One narrative says, well, these are isolated incidents. But these data would show us that these incidents are not so isolated and that they are affecting a significant number of people of Chinese ethnicity. So that’s the big takeaway.”
Canadians who identify as ethnically Chinese are around 1.7 million, or five per cent of Canada’s population, according to Statistics Canada data cited in the survey.
“It’s a stressful time for all of us in this country,” Kurl said.
“And then for a significant cohort, a major part of our community, they’re also worried about something else, a different kind of virus, and that virus is racism, and they’re on the frontlines experiencing it and also worried about what’s going to happen in terms of how this plays out in the future.”
Some people reported physical abuse as well, with eight per cent saying they have been frequently attacked or harmed physically. Another 21 per cent said they have been attacked or harmed physically infrequently. One survey respondent reported being spat on by a cyclist.
These numbers are just among those who reported frequent experiences.
The survey notes that when the responses of those who have ever experienced things like this over the past three months are taken into account, the results show an even wider spread problem, with 64 per cent saying they faced some level of disrespect during the pandemic.
One in four said they were often met with less respect because of their ethnicity. One person from the survey recalled being told to “go back to where you came from” after asking someone at the grocery store to respect social distancing.
Another told researchers they don’t read comments or engage in talks online “because I receive nasty personal messages and harassment if I mention being Chinese Canadian, even though I don’t speak the language.”
The novel coronavirus emerged in Wuhan, China — the first epicentre of the virus. Even as case numbers remained relatively low earlier this year, weeks before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in March, there were already concerns about related xenophobia and racism directed towards the Chinese community.
At the end of January, as the country dealt with its first case of COVID-19, Canada’s chief medical officer felt compelled to address the “growing number of reports of #racism and stigmatizing comments on social media directed to people of Chinese and Asian descent.”
U.S. President Donald Trump referred to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” on more than one occasion, defending himself by claiming it’s “not racist at all.”
The president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, John C. Yang, said in March that Trump’s comments harkened back to the late 1800s, when Chinese Americans were deemed the “yellow peril,” despite living in the U.S. for years.
And this past weekend, at his first campaign rally in months in Tulsa, Okla., Trump referred to the virus as the “kung flu.”
When asked about how North American media coverage of the virus outbreak has impacted how Canadians view people of Chinese ethnicity, a full two-thirds of respondents said they felt media coverage had an overall negative effect.
Sense of belonging
Another big takeaway from the data is the gap between how Canadians of Chinese ethnicity view themselves versus how they think others see them, Kurl said.
Overall, many respondents indicated a strong sense of belonging within Canada while also taking pride in their own ethnicity.
An overwhelming majority of those surveyed (88 per cent) said they love Canada and what it stands for and that being Canadian is an important part of their identity. A similar majority also said their Chinese ethnicity is a significant part of their identity.
But when asked if others view them as Canadian as well, only 13 per cent indicated they think others always view them as Canadian, and one in four said they feel like outsiders in Canada.
“In Canada, we have this notion that we are this endlessly accepting, tolerant, enthusiastically multicultural country,” Kurl said.
“I would say that these numbers underscore that we have some work to be doing.”
–With files from Allison Bench, Global News
Partnered with the University of Alberta, the Angus Reid Institute conducted an online survey between June 15 and 18, 2020, among a representative random sample of 516 adult Canadians self-identifying as ethnically Chinese. The survey was self-commissioned and paid for by the Institute and university.
The survey’s methodology says for comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size carries a margin of error of +/- 4.3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are attributed to rounding.