A downtown London, Ont., bar is drawing widespread condemnation for recent outdoor signage that has been described as anti-Asian and racist by several local politicians and other members of the community — charges the bar’s owner has rejected.
The signage outside of the Ale House, which on at least three occasions has referred to the coronavirus as “China virus,” has also prompted at least one local member of parliament to inquire whether any city bylaws could be applied to combat the messages.
“With anti-Asian racism on the rise over the last year we feel it’s important to let our neighbours and constituents know that we strongly condemn this language,” said NDP MPPs Teresa Armstrong, Terence Kernaghan and Peggy Sattler in a joint statement on Friday.
“This kind of anti-Chinese rhetoric is inflammatory and unwelcome in our increasingly diverse city,” they said, noting that there has been a marked increase in anti-Asian attitudes and behaviours as a result of the coronavirus.
In addition to the three NDP MPPs, the signs have also been denounced by London Mayor Ed Holder, local MPs Peter Fragiskatos, Lindsay Mathyssen, Karen Vecchio, and Kate Young, the Downtown London BIA, and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“This kind of hateful language doesn’t represent the city I used to call home. London is a city of kindness, generosity, equality & love. This sign represents the opposite,” Singh tweeted Friday.
“We must always call out this form of ignorance & intolerance – I am glad so many are.”
Holder tweeted late Friday morning that the city was fortunate to have a “proud, and vibrant Chinese community,” and that the support that had arisen in response to the signs was a testament to that, adding it was “a far better reflection of the values this city truly represents.”
“We have been in contact with (London Police Service) and the Downtown BIA to discuss the content of the sign and although the numerous messages are divisive and offensive to members of the community, they do not meet any threshold for criminal charges to be issued.”
The signs were also condemned by members of Black Lives Matter London, who in a Facebook post Thursday, said the signs encouraged hateful rhetoric. They added it was hoped that “swift action” would be taken that would see the signs removed.
“No one should be subject to this racist, violent and disrespectful language. Not in a city whose recent mandates include dismantling racism in each of its forms,” the post read.
In an interview, Alexandra Kane of Black Lives Matter London said Ale House could not claim ignorance about the sign’s phrasing given the heightened focus there has been over the last year on the impacts of racism.
“Absolutely, he chose to be racist. And that is the horrible part. He’s choosing to attack a community with this violent message.”
Describing the signage as “completely unacceptable,” Fragiskatos tweeted Thursday that he had reached out to the city earlier that day “to ask if any bylaws are applicable for combating these vile sign messages.”
In a statement Friday, London’s chief municipal law enforcement officer said the city had received “numerous complaints” about the signage, adding it was taking the complaints seriously.
“We are working together with London Police Service, in partnership with regulatory agencies, to review the messages and determine what we can do within our legal jurisdiction,” said Orest Katolyk.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing to see the negative impact these divisive and offensive messages are having on our community.”
London police have told 980 CFPL previously that that the signs, while “disappointing and offensive,” in and of itself did not meet the threshold of a criminal offence.
Speaking with 980 CPL on Thursday, Ale House owner Alex Petro defended his use of the term “China virus,” saying it was strictly towards the Chinese government and had “nothing to do with the people.”
“I think I clarified that today, that my rants, they’re always geared towards government. They’re not geared towards people,” he said.
“I’ve got no issue against Asian people at all, absolutely at all. I’ve been in this location for 11 years. I do a fair bit of business with two of the Asian stores, and I have lots of Asian friends. So my rants are strictly towards the Communist government of China.”
On Thursday, following backlash from members of the public, the bar’s sign was changed to: “We love Chinese people we hate the genocide and China virus your commie govt has inflicted on us.”
Ale House is no stranger to controversy for its signs. In 2017, the bar garnered headlines for messages relating to a promise by then-Premier Kathleen Wynne to increase minimum wage to $15 per hour.
During Thursday’s interview, Petro rejected unverified social media allegations that a group of international students had been ejected from Ale House recently after asking that one of the offending signs be taken down.
The post also alleged that the students were told by a manager that “no Chinese is allowed in the restaurant.” The social media posts have since been taken down.
The allegations prompted a joint statement late Thursday from Western University, its three affiliated university colleges, and Fanshawe College, stating it was “unacceptable for our students to be subjected to acts of racism in the city where they choose to make a home.”
The statement did not name Ale House directly, but alluded to “an incident involving a local London restaurant,” and that, “as leaders of London’s post-secondary institutions, we have an obligation to call out racism when we become aware of it.”
“It didn’t happen. Period,” Petro says.
“We have a number of cameras here … I’ve put an open invitation, anybody who wants to come and look at the cameras they’re more than welcome to do it,” he said.
“I’m reaching out to my lawyer to see what, if anything, can be done. I can tell you that story is not true at all.”
Asian communities across the country have reported spikes in racist behaviour over the last year because of the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan, China in late 2019.
Most recently, Vancouver police on Thursday reported a disturbing 717 per cent surge in anti-Asian hate crimes in the city in 2020 — 98 cases compared to 12 in 2019.
Queenie Choo, the CEO of SUCCESS, a community service group for newcomers to Canada, said there are likely far more hate crime incidents that have gone unreported.
Data from Statistics Canada shows that Canadians with Asian backgrounds were more likely to report noticing increased racial or ethnic harassment during the pandemic.
Earlier this month, Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, told the Canadian Press that the pandemic had resulted in an array of attacks directed at the Chinese-Canadian community.
The initial rhetoric around COVID-19, such as some labelling it the “Wuhan virus” or the “China virus,” had also done “tremendous” damage, Go said.
“Just because we look Chinese or look Asian, we’re suddenly not Canadian,” Go said.
Asked whether he took into account the potential for anti-Asian sentiment to come from his use of “China virus,” Petro said he couldn’t prevent how someone chose to interpret the sign.
“Do I know it’s going to invoke conversation? Absolutely. Will there be blowback to Asian people? Possibly,” he said.
“I can’t verify the stories you’re telling me about in Vancouver. I have no reason to believe that you’re not telling me the factual information. But again, I try and be clear with the limited space that I have on that sign … my rants are generally based towards government — not generally, 100 per cent.”
Petro said he believed that not enough attention and action was being taken when it came to the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.
Kovrig and Spavor were arrested more than two years ago in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Chinese tech executive, Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted in the U.S. on fraud charges.
“Everybody’s in an uproar right now because I used the term ‘China virus,’ but you’ve got two guys, two Canadian citizens sitting in a frickin’ rathole in China, and we have no response from our government,” he said.
“I have no fear in calling it what it is. And I know, and the people that know me, know that I’m not a racist person … I know I’m a nobody. And what I feel or do in the big scheme of things is going to go nowhere. I know that. But if we don’t start speaking out, then nothing will happen.”
Earlier this week, Canada joined the U.S. and 56 other countries in endorsing a declaration denouncing state-sponsored arbitrary detention of foreign citizens for political purposes, a move that China called a “despicable and hypocritical act” over to its own calls for Canada to release Meng.
On Thursday, the Conservatives called for the House of Commons to formally declare crimes against minority Uighur Muslims in China a genocide. The motion is non-binding on the government and does not lay out what any next steps ought to be. A vote is expected Monday.
— With files from Jacquelyn LeBel and the Canadian Press