Kingston researchers aim to document anti-Asian racism during pandemic

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed Canadian society over the past five months. Now, a research project from KEYS Job Centre aims to understand its connection to perceived anti-Asian racism in Kingston.

“This particular virus and the way it has been politicized by some — down south, but also here by our neighbours — has added to a difficult set of circumstances for newcomers” said Karl Flecker, an Immigrant Employment Specialist at KEYS.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, racist acts against people of Chinese and other Asian descent have reportedly increased across Canada. Flecker said Kingston is not immune to that trend.

“Restaurants in town have challenges with customers, customer service, vandalism,” he said. “You have the overt expressions of anti-Asian racism that are explicit, but you also have the subtler, systemic sorts of racism.”

Flecker said newcomers to Kingston, no matter what their particular immigration status, face a lot of challenges. “Not only with the labour market, but social inclusion,” he said.

“The anti-Asian component was something we were well aware of newcomers facing. We want to document it, but also bring it to the attention of other social service providers and policy makers, about how easy it is to scapegoat and to further create impediments that are not in anyone’s best interest,” he said.

Surveying the community

Flecker is supervising the work of Queen’s University undergraduate student Alyssa Martschenko in a survey focused on anti-Asian racism affecting Kingston’s newcomers. Their goal is to better understand how racism impacts newcomers’ lives and efforts to integrate into the Kingston community.

“My research project is designed to hear from newcomers directly who are impacted by this topic, and also to hear from others in the community, including, [established Asian-Canadians] and allies in the struggle against racism,” Martschenko said.

“I’ve developed a set of survey questions addressing this topic that will take five to 10 minutes to complete,” she said. “I am also seeking to compliment the survey data with up to 20 direct interviews with key informants familiar with the topic.”

Martschenko plans to conduct the interviews by phone, Zoom or in-person, masked in an outdoor setting. She then plans to compile her findings into a report for other social service agencies, institutions and government.

While the term Asian is typically attributed to people of Far Eastern heritage in China, Japan, and Korea, Asia includes a vast diversity of cultures, extending to the Middle East and across India, Pakistan.

“In my experience the overt racists quite often don’t have a very sophisticated sense of geography or nationality,” Flecker said. “The distinction… about the subcontinental groupings can elude many people who already start with a limited perspective.” As such, he said the survey is open broadly to Kingston newcomers.

“There are specific questions for newcomers within the survey,” Flecker added, “and Alyssa is doing one-to-one interviews with the other allies, institutions and stakeholders. We are looking for the experiences from the people who are impacted.”

The survey has been live for just over a week, but Martschenko said the uptake has not been as strong as she had hoped.

“There has been a little bit of hesitancy that we have noticed because it is a personal story to share,” she said. They’re now trying to raise awareness to increase participation, so she can analyze the findings and create her report before the end of her twelve-week internship.

Martschenko plans to circulate the final report as widely as possible to local institutions and social agencies. Flecker noted that KEYS has a client list of over 800 local employers, and partnerships working with employer groups through the City, who will also have access to their findings.

Barriers for newcomers in Kingston

Flecker has been in Kingston for 35 years, with a long history in human rights and anti-racism work both locally and abroad. “I’ve been in the labour movement and other social justice organizations, and I ran some of the first projects in Kingston that attempted to address anti-racism organizational change with social service agencies,” he said.

“For the most part, the majority of people respond [to newcomers] with kindness, welcoming attitudes, and open arms,” he said. “The important thing with reports like this is to remind thoughtful people, caring people that we can easily slip into a very polarized, divisive society. There are many examples nearby and we need to be vigilant about that, and thoughtful with our actions.”

Flecker gave the example of social media comments from Conservative MP Derek Sloan, who represents Hastings, Lennox & Addington and is running for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. In late April, Sloan released a video in which he said China and the World Health Organization (WHO) had misled the world on the realities of the pandemic. He criticized Canada’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam for apparently following their lead and asked “Does she work for Canada, or does she work for China?”

Flecker said the comments were an example of a more subtle, systemic form of racism. “His comments made national media when he denigrated Theresa Tam, and made erroneous and hyperbolic connections between the WHO, China and COVID-19,” Flecker said. “You can’t be in a position of prominence make those kinds of statements without recognizing that there will be an impact, a down-the-chain impact.”

An incident at Kingston Coffee House in the Kingston Centre in late June also demonstrated the anti-Asian racism active in the community. According to a post from Kingston Coffee House on social media, which was circulated widely online, a staff member at the local coffee shop asked a female patron if she had a mask (after KFL&A Public Health had already announced a mandatory masking policy due to the pandemic). The woman responded by banging on tables and responding to the employee “You are a bloody Indian who should not be here, your mom and dad haven’t raised you well,” according to the owners of Kingston Coffee House.

By contrast, Flecker said uptake on employer initiatives such as the Workplace Inclusion Charter and Newcomers Empowering Business program point to a genuine local willingness to include and integrate newcomers.

“There’s a group of our stakeholders that recognize the economic, social and cultural value that immigrants bring to the community, and they also recognize that some of the barriers they face are related to xenophobia, discrimination and racism,” he said.

Institutions like the City and employer groups with a vested interest in recruiting and retaining a more diverse labour force will be targets for receiving the findings of their research, he said.

A link to particpate in the survey can be found here.

Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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