Ontario school board says coronavirus concerns veer into anti-Chinese racism
A lab assistant works on samples after an AP interview with Christian Drosten, director of the institute for virology of Berlin's Charite hospital on his researches on the coronavirus in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
TORONTO -- Community organizations are applauding an Ontario school board for taking a stand against racial profiling as the new coronavirus raises concerns about discrimination against Chinese-Canadians.
Officials with the York Region District School Board issued a letter Monday urging parents to not speculate about the risk of students and staff members spreading the virus based on their race or travel history.
An online petition by parents in the region north of Toronto, which has a large Chinese population, calls on the school board to ask students whose families have recently returned from China to stay home for 17 days to "self-quarantine."
Board chair Juanita Nathan and education director Louise Sirisko wrote that such requests run the risk of "demonstrating bias and racism," even when made in the name of safety.
"At times such as this, we must come together as Canadians and avoid any hint of xenophobia, which in this case can victimize our East Asian Chinese community," the letter said. "Situations such as these can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes and hate."
More than a dozen community groups that advocate for marginalized communities issued a joint statement Tuesday commending the school board for taking swift action to prevent racial profiling.
"Racism has no place in our society or in our classrooms," said the statement, which was endorsed by the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations among other organizations.
On Tuesday, health officials found a presumed case of the virus in British Columbia, in addition to the two others that have been identified in Toronto.
Speaking in Ottawa, Health Minister Patty Hajdu cautioned people against letting fear of the illness drive them to act out against others.
Organizers are set to hold a press conference outside Toronto City Hall on Wednesday to address the stigmatization of Chinese-Canadian communities amid growing public panic about the new coronavirus.
Speaker Avvy Go, the director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said the climate of fear brings back painful memories about the discrimination Chinese-Canadians suffered during 2003's SARS outbreak.
Go said she represented clients facing landlords looking to evict them, employers who cut their wages or their jobs and immigration officials who wore face masks while hearing refugee claims.
Go testified about these experiences during Ontario's inquiry into the SARS outbreak, but said the commission's more than 1,200-page report didn't address the role anti-Chinese racism played in the crisis.
While health authorities say they're better prepared to handle an outbreak than 17 years ago, Go said the lack of progress in responding to racial profiling presents a public-health concern.
"(The) government should start getting ready to prepare for the very foreseeable outbreak of racism during this crisis," Go said. "Don't wait till the matter gets worse."
Tonny Louie, chair of the Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area, helped kick off Lunar New Year celebrations this weekend by joking to the crowd that his sore throat was caused by a cold, not the new coronavirus.
But by the second day of the festivities, Louie said the event saw a considerable dropoff in attendance. He believes businesses in the city's bustling Chinatown have also suffered a loss of patrons due to fears about contracting the virus.
According to a 2004 report by the Chinese Canadian National Council, Chinese-owned businesses across Toronto were hit by the SARS outbreak, leading to between a 40 per cent and 80 per cent loss of income by some estimates.
The economic blow was so pronounced that then-prime minister Jean Chretien dined in Chinatown in a bid to show it was safe to patronize Chinese establishments.
Justin Kong, executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council's Toronto chapter, said it will take more than a photo-op to assuage community members' concerns about a resurgence in anti-Chinese racism.
Kong said social media has accelerated the spread of misinformation that could not only fuel the stigmatization of Chinese-Canadian communities, but also distract from the evidence-based health information Canadians need.
"This is a crisis for all Canadians, and Chinese-Canadians are bearing the brunt of it," Kong said. "We need to make sure that we not only prevent the spread of this virus, but that we don't harm people and communities in the process."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2020.