One of the most troubling trends to emerge during the pandemic is the sharp rise of anti-Asian racism. Nearly half of Asian people in BC experienced racism in the last year1. In Vancouver, anti-Asian hate crimes have gone up by 717%2. And yet, these statistics don’t capture just how harmful and traumatizing this has been on our communities.
As we find ways to shift and share power with equity deserving communities, we take seriously the accountability we have to Asian communities facing discrimination and violence fueled by racism. One way of shifting power is by shifting the spotlight.
Many Asian-led organizations are doing important work in community building, grassroots organizing, and cultural preservation, which counteract the detrimental effects of anti-Asian racism.
The 中文圖書館 or Chinese Library and the South Asian Legal Clinic Society of BC (SALCBC) are two groups that our LEVEL BIPOC Grant program has funded to support the advancement of racial equity and racial justice. Their efforts and passion for strengthening communities is an example of the resiliency of Asian communities in BC. Despite hardships, they are finding ways to cultivate connections and pursue justice.
Cultivating Connections between Generations
Fear brought on by the rise in anti-Asian racism and social isolation brought on by the pandemic has made the Chinese Library an even more vital part of the community. Volunteers feel a renewed sense of purpose and connection with their community. Through the Chinese Library, people from all generations can access support and build relationships with one another—crucial during these trying times.
“To register for supports online, people don’t know how to do it and they have to call you. All these things make us feel happy because people recognize our work and they need us,” explains Herman Yan, a 15-year volunteer with the Chinese Library and the treasurer of the board. “It makes us feel important. That’s our purpose to be there. We are here to help.”
The volunteer-run Chinese Library began in 1972 offering Chinese language books and cultural events to Chinese immigrants. Over the years, they saw a need for additional services and initiatives that could help newcomers transition to their life in Canada such as English language classes. Today they help community reconnect with and preserve Chinese Canadian cultural heritage through intergenerational collaboration and dialogue, and events.
“As younger Chinese Canadians, to acknowledge the people who come before us is a beautiful sign of respect and honour,” says Tanya Lui, student volunteer at the Chinese Library. “One way the bridge is built is through the simple act of storytelling and allowing space for older generations to share their views and perspectives—and as younger generation, meet them there and bring our own ideas and experiences.”
“It’s an important opportunity for intergenerational collaboration; to see what the hopes and dreams of the elderly are for the organization and to assist them in connecting with young people,” adds Sunni Chen, volunteer. “None of my extended family live in Canada so it’s special to be friends with local Chinese folks who are a bit older. It’s a way for me to maintain my culture.”
Pursuing Rights and Justice
About eight South Asian lawyers formed the SALCBC in 2019, which delivers culturally appropriate pro-bono legal advice to self-identifying South Asian British Columbians who face barriers in accessing services and navigating the justice system.
“Some South Asian clients have a hard time accessing justice, either not having money to hire a lawyer or not understanding the legal system because they may come from countries where their legal system is corrupt,” explains Meena Dhillon, co-founder and co-chair of SALCBC. “They may also have fear of the legal system because legal systems back home are corrupt or it reminds them of colonization. It can be overwhelming and scary.”
Meena said that international students, a large majority who in BC are from the Punjab region of India, have been particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. Their student visas prevent them from working fulltime hours, yet they face tremendous pressure to ‘make it’ in Canada (a common aspiration for newcomers). In addition, they also pay higher tuition rates and are obliged to send money home to their families. The financial stress often makes them vulnerable to exploitation or unsafe work environments. They’re often misinformed by consultants who offer false promises that a student visa will lead to citizenship. Traditional safe spaces like gurdwaras that would otherwise provide refuge and support aren’t as readily available because of the pandemic.
In addition to virtual legal advice, SALCBC launched a workshop series tackling topics like employment law and immigration, and curates government resources in multiple South Asian languages like Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Tamil. While the pandemic has created challenges, Meena notes that it’s also offered up new possibilities in expanding their reach by offering virtual services.
“One of the joys of this work for us has been to help better equip people in their day-to-day life so they are more empowered,” says Meena. “The workshops provide them with legal information and give them reassurance they can trust in the legal system here. It’s been rewarding to support someone facing multiple levels of stress in their life.”