Category Archives: Community Building Initiatives

Page that discusses my community initiatives and work

Law Student Legal Advice Program – Assistance for Low-Income Immigration/Refugee/Citizenship Applicants

Many of you may already know or have recently heard that I found a new home for providing legal services and mentorship. I am humbled to join a list of my respected professional mentors such as Tim Bailey (currently at the Law Foundation of BC) and Sarah Marsden (current Clinic Director/Professor at Thompson Rivers University Law) in becoming a part-time Supervising Immigration Lawyer here at the Law Student Legal Advice Program (“LSLAP”), a non-profit legal clinic which operates through UBC’s Allard Law School.

I work alongside incredible practitioners Chris Heslinga (Supervising Civil Lawyer) and Andrew Bonfield (Criminal Law) and am able to come UBC/Allard once a week to meet with students and prepare resources/strategies to assist more low-income and vulnerable clients. I try and stretch the five hours I have where I can 🙂

LSLAP offers summary legal advice and representation for low-income clients in a variety of legal areas (see: https://www.lslap.bc.ca/). There are income thresholds which those that operate phones and run summary advice clinics will screen for.

Specific to immigration, I supervise law student clinicians who are taking on cases ranging from refugee files to temporary residence, permanent residence, enforcement, appeals, and citizenship matters. We don’t currently do judicial reviews but I am working on some resources that may help self-represented litigants in this regard.

The benefit of LSLAP  is that our clinicians can take on cases that other agencies may not be able to. We take on a lot of student matters, assist on temporary work issues, and in particular specialize in some of the roadmapping that help low-income individuals avoid legal problems that could come at high costs. Another area where we do a lot of work is with humanitarian and compassionate grounds applications and those requiring relief on temporary policies. I suspect that with increased emphasis on enforcement, we will also be assisting more individuals with guiding them on restoration.

We also rely heavily on a strong referral network to ensure our clients are matched up with other legal service providers and are aware of their ability to apply for legal aid, or to seek representation in complex refugee matters.

I personally review every immigration matter that goes out the door to make sure the advice is accurate and that we’re providing timely assistance (although with students, we may not be able to step in on emergencies – stays, pending removals, etc!)

Other practitioners may also find some benefit in the manuals LSLAP produces. See the Immigration and Refugee Law Manual here and the Citizenship manual here.

In short, this short blog is to let you all know about this resource for your clients and get in touch with me at immigration.sl@lslap.bc.ca if you would like to refer a client directly. You can also call the switch board at the info below:

​Please call (604) 822-5791 to schedule an appointment.
Please call (604) 684-1628 to set up a Chinese language appointment at our Chinatown clinic.
如果你需要中文服務的話,請撥打(604) 684-1628 將會有人幫您預約時間.

Please note that LSLAP cannot give legal advice over the telephone. Also, please remember to bring a piece of ID. 
Our office hours are Monday to Friday from 10AM – 4PM. We are closed on all public holidays.​

​See you and your clients soon!

Guest Post: Randall Cohn on Volunteering for the Dilley Pro Bono Project for Detained Migrant Women/Children in South Texas

As many of you know, Vancouver Immigration Blog likes to highlight the experiences and perspectives of other migrants and migrant-supporting organizations/individuals. Today’s guest post, is a piece from Randall Cohn, a colleague of mine who I have a great deal of respect for. He recently came from a week working the front lines in Dilley, Texas at the South Texas Family Residential Center where he assisted in providing services to women and children in immigration detention. He shares a harrowing read and asks those who are interested in helping to contact him to get involved – please email him: randall@edelmann.ca

I spent the last week in Dilley, TX, volunteering for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which provides legal services to the women and children currently in immigration detention at the South Texas Family Residential Center.

Here are some reflections from my experience:

1) I volunteered for this project once before, in the summer of 2015. Following a steep rise in the number of asylum-seekers from Central America, and under pressure to show that they were protecting the border after expanding the DACA program, the Obama administration had recently implemented a policy of detaining families seeking asylum until they could be fully screened for admissibility concerns and complete a ‘credible fear interview’, which is the first-level administrative process in which an ‘asylum officer’ working for USCIS determined whether they had a prima facie claim. The major controversy at the time had to with the length of detention before claimants got their interviews, and the conditions at the facility (and at the CBP processing centers where they spent a few days prior to being transferred to Dilley) that many perceived to be designed to create a disincentive to seeking asylum in the US. Significantly, however — and I liked to think, in part because of the counsel that the detainees received from the volunteer lawyers — more than 90% of the detainees ultimately passed their interviews, and were released with a temporary protection from deportation that would allow them to apply for permission to work and build lives in the US while they waited for the opportunity to have their claims substantively evaluated in immigration court.

During the last few years, as public awareness of family detention increased and people directed their anger at the Trump administration’s cruelty, I have made occasional attempts to remind people that family detention began under Obama’s watch. I remembered the outrage that I felt in 2015 while I listened to these amazing and courageous women describe the reasons they fled Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as they clutched their young children, almost all of whom were sick from the days they had spent in the uncomfortably cold processing rooms known among claimants and their advocates as ‘hieleras’ (iceboxes). It seemed important to remind people that both cruel treatment of refugee families at the southern border and US culpability for the refugee crisis itself are rooted in US policies that preceded Trump, and have had more or less unbroken continuity between Democratic and Republican administrations for at least 40 years.

I expected that things would be worse this time around — that the whole situation would be more institutionalized, that the stories about treatment by CBP and ICE would be more offensive, and that the detainees’ prospects for eventual release would be reduced.

I was, however, not prepared for just how much worse things have gotten.

2) After months of litigation that led to contradictory opinions in different federal jurisdictions, and a toggling on and off of injunctions, USCIS is now fully implementing Trump’s ‘safe third country’ policy (not to be confused by my Canadian comrades with the controversial safe third country agreement between the US and Canada — there is no irregular entry loophole in this version). Under that policy, applicants are not eligible for asylum under the standards set out in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees unless they first sought and were denied protection in at least one country that they passed through on their way to the United States. For most, that means that they would have first had to apply for asylum in Mexico, where refugees are routinely targeted for kidnapping and extortion. Both of the women I worked closely with this week talked casually about being kidnapped on their way to the US border and paying ransom as though this was just an expected leg on their itinerary.

Because most families fleeing from Central America do not believe that they will be safe in Mexico, this means that almost every person seeking asylum at the southern border from any country other than Mexico itself is barred, at the outset, from refugee protection under the convention. Instead, they must either seek asylum under the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, which has much narrower requirements, or receive a ‘withholding of removal’ under a statute that restricts the US from refoulement (or returning people to places where they are at risk of harm) where it is ‘more likely than not’ that they will be persecuted for the reasons established in the 1951 refugee convention. In essence, this amounts to what lawyers call a ‘burden shift’. Instead of presuming that people are telling the truth and erring on the side of avoiding refoulement where there is a reasonable possibility that a person would face danger if returned to their home country (i.e. does their claim qualify on a prima facie basis), the US government is now requiring that asylum-seekers convince asylum officers that the danger constitutes a 51% or greater chance of persecution.

How is such a chance measured? What is the methodology? What counts as evidence of risk? Are there considerations for the obvious obstacles to people having such evidence, even if it exists, with them when they cross the border? Nobody knows. But the effect is that, just in the last few weeks, the success rate for credible fear interviews has plummeted from 90+% to less than half. To be clear: that means that the US is now, as a matter of policy, sending more than half of the women and children who have fled, at great peril and expense, from violence in Central American countries that is, arguably, the direct result of persistent US intervention in those countries’ domestic affairs, back to where they came from, and where many of them are very likely (say, 49% likely) to be abused, raped, tortured, trafficked, and/or killed.

3) One of the women with whom I spent the most time this last week is from Honduras, where she was raped and abused by both her domestic partner and his brother (who works for a local cartel), and held captive and forced to work as a domestic servant. When things started to get worse and she began to fear for the safety of her young daughter, she took her daughter and headed north.

When she arrived at the US border, she and her daughter — like almost all asylum-seekers — were held for several days in the hielara for processing. When she was having her fingerprints taken, the CBP agent told her that the US had just passed a policy ending asylum, that she would be returned to Honduras, and that they were just taking her fingerprints for records to make sure they could identify her if she ever tried to come back. He pointed to a group of women being led out of the processing center and said “Do you see that group there? That’s the last group who will ever be allowed into the US. You just missed it.” When they were transferred to Dilley, she thought she was being taken to the airport. She was scheduled for a credible fear interview only days after arriving, and was not able to meet with a lawyer before she found herself answering a series of aggressive questions about her experiences in Honduras, believing the whole time that the decision to send her back had already been made. She chose not to provide key details of her story — which she had never shared with anyone, and about which she was deeply ashamed — and she was quickly found ineligible.

My amazing interpreter Zoe and I spent most of two days with her after she got that decision, during which we finally explained the process to her and she realized what had happened. We took a detailed statement from her that described both her actual situation in Honduras and the reasons that she did not tell the whole story at her interview, which will be submitted to the immigration court along with a request for reconsideration of her decision. Even if the judge recognizes the cruelty of her treatment by CBP and accepts that as a basis for the contradictions between her new statement and what she told the asylum officer, the most likely outcome is that, because she did not apply for asylum in Mexico and has no documentary proof of her circumstances in Honduras, she will be sent back there within a couple of weeks.

No single part of this woman’s story is in any way unusual.

4) There are currently approximately 1700 people in detention in Dilley, composed entirely of women and their children. Many of them are heartbreakingly young — the women themselves are in their late teens and early 20s, and their children are infants and toddlers. There is a day care and a school on site where the kids can go during the day, but kids between 2 and 4 years old seem to be in a gap of services, where the mothers are most likely to bring their kids with them to the visitation trailer where legal services are provided. There is a small room in the trailer, its walls covered with colorful posters about personal hygiene, where Disney movies play, sometimes dubbed in Spanish, on a big screen. The kids frequently come wondering out, tears welling up, looking for their mothers.

Volunteers and employees of the Dilley Pro-Bono Project sign agreements, before being allowed into the detention center, that — among other things — they will not hug or otherwise comfort the children. If they are inconsolable, volunteers are allowed to lead them by one hand to go find their moms. I have been told that people who have violated this agreement have been permanently barred from the center.

Obviously, this was very hard for me. Much harder than it was in 2015, before the birth of my own son, whom I feel certain I would do absolutely anything necessary to protect from harm. Every single woman in detention in Dilley, TX feels that as deeply as I do. That’s why they are there.

5) The Dilley Pro-Bono Project is unbelievable. Every single week, a new group of lawyers, interpreters, mental health workers, and legal volunteers arrive in Dilley to staff the project, guided by a small on-the-ground staff who live in Dilley, and work 6 and 7 day weeks full of 14 hour days. In addition to training, supervising, and managing a new group every week, they coordinate with off-site pro bono counsel to bring litigation on behalf of the Dilley residents that has been and will continue to be directly responsible for slowing the Trump administration’s rollout of its cruelest and most obviously illegal policy directives.

When I volunteered in 2015, I left thinking that I had never seen as impressive an example of what effectively organized direct action can do. It remains so, but on a much larger scale, and with much higher stakes. There is no time or space for any bullshit, and everyone knows it. Everyone works incredibly hard. It’s a logistical nightmare full of constant crises and adjustments, and everyone just adapts. It’s a ridiculous model, but nobody can think of anything better, and the crisis isn’t going away, so it just keeps on going.

Those of you who know me well know that I am ambivalent about just about everything I do, but I am not ambivalent about this. In the midst of a historical disaster, this project is a model of determination, humility, mutual-aid, and resilience. If anyone reading this has even the slightest urge to join this project, please do it. Or send them money, or send money to support someone who is trying to go (thank you to those who supported me). Talk to me if you want my help making it happen.

Solidarity and love.

 

 

 

Her Steps – A Poem

The structured systems that serve to silence our sisters in their seven point five and subsume them with stress in their remaining seven.

Is this our so-called societal success? She spends, no suffers, another sleepless night spent sobbing for six hours in straight darkness and solitude.

I see you tell her to smile more, see the sun, see past the shade. To be more serene, put away that sass – but only some of the time so she still entertains your senses.

“You have to be situational – be more strategic – be selfish – slow down – but don’t forget to call out the sexism!”

Self-rationalization becomes overly-simplified through surface level schemes from bullshit self-help gurus who have nothing at stake.

To the point where actual solution-finding becomes entirely suspect and sloppy like the sauce in an alphabet spaghetti – trying to find an I and a C and a U.

But here’s a suggestion – maybe you could share that your soul struggles too and tell her she ain’t flying solo from here on in.

Maybe you could also just shut up and listen to her saga for a second without subverting her narratives in what you want to see and hear.

You ain’t her savior, Prince you the Problem. Stop trynna sanctify the situation and show up to be in support.

They are her steps.

A Reflection on My FACLBC Speech – Where It Came From and Where I’m Going

Reflecting on My FACLBC Intro Speech – Two Days Later

I am writing two days after delivering a speech at the FACLBC Gala that raised some questions and controversy. I have heard feedback from a few individuals (Asian lawyers that I respect) that I came off a little ‘inflammatory’ and ‘strong.’ I have also heard from others that I ‘spoke my truth’ and ‘said what needed to be said.’ I have taken all this feedback in stride.

In this piece, I wanted to provide both a contextual background but also give you an insight into my recent journey. One key thing, as my mentor Kevin Huang (E.D. Hua Foundation) has continuously reminded me is that we’re all in different stages. I by no means wish to write this a way to impose my views onto others. At the same time, I had a truth, one that Tina and I had shared – and a story I will tell below of how we got there. I am aware that this may vary from processes others are going through in finding meaning and understanding in their work. We may all end up in different spaces and places – and being Asian does not mean we are all one and the same.

Some will be stuck in feelings of survival while others will reap benefits from the current system that will boost our individuality, award/reward us, and lay foundations for happy families that grow up in different financial/social circumstances. It is isn’t my place to tell you that you should or shouldn’t aim for that. Indeed, my past few years has been a direct struggle in trying to question the own path I was on, discussing these issues with family, and finding allyship within community.

Indeed, I feel more uncomfortable now in my legal work than I ever have as a result of this process of think through it.

The Speech and the Inspiration Behind It

Tina and I decided to step up to do this talk on Gabriola Island where we both attended a week-long workshop called Conscious Use of Power (https://www.inneractivist.com/conscious_use_of_power).  We had both found out that we were appointed to the Awards committee and after a week of learning about our identities as both agents of oppression and targets of marginalization, decided this would be one way we could contribute. Tina and I had written a piece together in The Advocate trying to examine the challenges of being racialized lawyers and dissecting the intersecting marginalization and untold challenges we find ourselves subject to.

We were both reflecting on a series of challenges we were having/had in trying to advocate for social justice issues as Asian lawyers. We also thought that maybe acknowledging the fact that in many ways Asian lawyers have become privileged by the system and thus should do more to help address social justice issues might serve some good. We were fresh off conversations with Black women, Muslim women, and other individuals who called us in to do more in our respective fields.

Personally speaking, I had also gone through a lot of change. For those that know I made a major change in the spring of 2018, leaving a Firm that was more focused on the business of law and primarily served high net worth clients and corporations. I also saw myself head towards a toxic masculinity and relationship with power and money.

Transitioning into a progressive Firm (where I currently am at) has been hard on the mind and the soul. I have had to unlearn and rethink many things. I have also had to struggle with engaging in conflict, realizing the double-edged sword that is “stepping into my client’s shoes” in these new (more difficult settings), and the realization that progressive spaces can often be less coloured than corporate spaces. I have struggled with trying to understand the meaning behind pursuing these administrative tasks of law – researching the background and thought processes of mostly white judges, learning how technical rules work, and trying to understand administrative law functions/principles. At the same time, I’ve decided to invest more time into community where I am able to consult, volunteer, speak, and assist – but still not feeling I’m doing enough utilizing my role as a lawyer. Recently, I’ve spent my spare time reading critical race theorists, memoirs from racialized writers, trying to learn more about Indigenous communities that I had too often ignored both in my legal studies and in my lived reality.

Ultimately, I have questioned the very root of the work that pays my bills. I am a racialized settler on stolen land, a product of immigrants, that is using my privileges to help other settlers come here. I am a gatekeeper for a colonialist system that I have bought into. I profit off people’s mistakes. I hold up a system that refuses applicants from Africa at the same rates that many Western European applicants get approved at. I realized that I have avoided refugee work possibly because of the way the system is so confused on credibility and my struggle with trying to break down that concept with respect to racialized bodies.  When litigating complex administrative law issues or being on the front lines of working in detention centres, I feel overwhelmed by the emotional gravity/unfamiliarity of the spaces or disconnected with the legal tests being applied/debated.

All of these factored into the speech below:

As I discussed below, generally Tina and I received good feedback (including one white man who came to us right after we spoke thanking us for ‘including the Indigenous piece’ but I did have the interaction I documented below.

There were many reasons I did not stay for the after-party social (the amount of time I have spent away from my spouse doing community engagements, primary among them) but honestly I was also tired. I have felt tired as a result of the weight of trying to break down and understand my complex relationship with my work.

Since posting my experiences, I heard from some attendees that my comment that the land was ‘stolen’ and then naming ‘white supremacy’ caused some uncomfortability at the tables. I faintly remember seeing Chief Justice Hinkson from the corner of my eye looking a bit uncomfortable as well.

I don’t want to get into the legalities raised by this colleague in our profession. Indigenous communities never ceded the land that I am on and for me that means it was stolen from them. Whether it was taken in other circumstances and areas with some sort of contract, the terra nulius and racial animus that underlined it, makes those transactions problematic. I don’t own these lands, nor do I believe I do when I buy a house. I do so on paper but not in reality.

On the point of white supremacy, I want to clarify to my Asian brothers and sisters that this term does not mean I am comparing white judges and lawyers to the KKK. White supremacy exists on individual animus/hate levels but my comments were addressed at systemic white supremacy, for which I will adopt the definition from Erika Wilson, UNC Chapel Hill in her excellent paper “The Legal Foundations of White Supremacy”:

I think Winston Sayson, QC in his speech highlighting the comments of the judiciary in the Komagatu Maru case, or if you look into the wording of earlier immigration acts, makes it clear that this was ingrained into the law and did not just ‘disappear’ along with racism. The explicit removal of these phrases and barriers has not meant they do not exist in other spheres, ones I am still working to unpack, write, and consult about.

I have been reflecting a little bit on whether it was the right time and place. While Tina and I had predicted the uncomfortability, there were other things I personally did not foresee. The one thing I regret was perhaps not seeing how our speech may have taken the limelight away from the winner of the award – a woman of colour. Tina and I discussed how we could use the words as a transition into lifting her work up and showing her off as an example.

I also was honestly not prepared for our speech to serve as a such a sharp contrast to the speech of Madam Justice Shergill. We had not known that her speech was about the very real ways in which we often create artificial barriers and how we have to have the mentality and mindset to push through. We also did not expect to go before the award honouring Winston Sayson, Q.C. who spoke about meritocracy and our need to work harder and to fight so one day we cease to exist as an organization. Again, those used to be the ways I felt as well, arguably even when I was serving as a Board member as FACLBC just a few years back.

Another moment also resonated with me. I had a mentor I highly respect come up to me and ask me at the FACLBC Gala if i was “still doing immigration work” after having seen likely my recent written pieces and advocacy,

I feel like this dichotomy doesn’t necessarily exist but when you are Asian it does and it is limiting. The reality is today, by virtue of the way we work, we have to run business ventures while serving community and family in our own ways.  Yet, I will be honest in sharing that for this very reason I have disconnected with close friends and struggled (in some circumstances) to enjoy new relationships – feeling often times neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ in trying to grapple with how much I am a business and an advocate at the same time.

These days I constantly feel guilty about the work I choose to do or do not do. I feel too privileged in social justice spaces to be sharing my perspectives and the same uncomfortability in privileged spaces, where I often disengage from conversation. It is a journey many of us are having; how we create our own spaces to talk about this, heal, and balance work and social lives will be determinative of our ability to be both happy and motivated to keep doing this work.

This morning as well another friend/mentor posted something on Facebook that resonated with me. Do we do our work in “love” or “anger”? Should our goal to do work that eliminates the need for affinity and move beyond our differences to a world where we are all one. This was likely how I saw diversity and a future a few years back but today I can’t say I see it in the same lens. I think capitalist societies will have to operate where someone is doing the labour and someone is making the profits. There will always be those on the outside and the bottom, they will more than likely be darker-skinned and visibly different (be it many persons with physical disablities or trans-community members), and I feel it is the role of Government, social services, and human goodness to hold them up.  I also think we need to tackle this notion that people of colour cannot be ‘angry,’ that we have to ‘smile’ through our oppression, keep our head down and work, and ignore systems that need changing. I have really resonated with the teaching of Dr. Ken Hardy when he talks about trying to turn anger (enrage) into productive outrage which is to be embraced (see his piece: here) . I do see a real fear in destructive rage where we do not give space for individuals to be angry or speak truth to the inequities they see.

“That’s the Problem with You People” – A Note on Self-Care

These days I have been reflecting on how much of  a burden I am taking on in my own mind trying to work through these issues. I need to give it time to be free and breathe.

I had an example of this. Just earlier today Olivia and I were crossing the road. A woman was walking ahead of us with her dog in tow. The dog was falling behind. As much as we tried to get it to move. The lights were about to change. I was worried about the dog and turned around trying to hold it and bring it to it’s owner. The dog ended up avoiding me and almost swerving into the road. Thankfully, it didn’t get hit and returned on it’s path.

The woman turned around and looked at me with her tired eyes. “Why did you turn around to grab my dog?” I stammered, I was worried. I didn’t want it go get hit. She answered “that’s the problem with you people. Save yourself first”

The idea that everyone’s problem and every social problem is now my problem has been a burden that I need to eventually shed. A mentor showed me his cup recently which said “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.” I told him I wish I could do that, but I cannot at this stage.

I am not a politician (nor do I inspire to be one at this stage). I simply am taking up too much head space worrying about things and issues I cannot control. I have also ignore my own health through this process, putting on weight, forgetting to disconnect, and frankly it’s become a problem. I’m going to start going back to therapy to discuss this as I sprint into my 31st year on this planet later this week.

I likely will need time ENTIRELY away from work in December but I have taken enough time this year. Olivia (my spouse) and I are also living like many in this city paycheck to paycheck and when you factor in the financial impact breaks have for contractors, there is no incentive to take extended time off. Even when we are on vacation, our work and clients follow us. It’s rare for Olivia and I to take a full day these days where we are not talking about work or our obligations – the realities of survival as racialized persons in an increasing tough town).

I am trying new ways to engage myself in this work. I need to. I may also have to jump into spaces to start doing the work that I would love to and start proactively saying ‘no’ to other work. If I am interested in policy, writing, looking at race equity, trying to litigate – I cannot continue to dabble in these spaces in order to make meaningful change. I have to commit time to writing, try and jump into human rights and race equity more substantively, and perhaps determine that there are groups I cannot help even if that work may be financially profitable or routine. This will truly be a test of values and I hope to have some of your encouragement, feedback, and mentorship through this process. I am grateful that in one of my new roles I mentor law students – and this work has given me the ability to mentor and work on my commitment to accessible justice and education.

Starting to Bring Together Asian Justice Advocates in Conversation

Going through the internal struggles I am going through and having conversations with others (particularly women of colour, junior lawyers, and recent law school graduates) who are experiencing the same thing I have decided we need to start organizing. One of our first plans is to create a safe and regular space to meet to talk about this. We do not intend to replace any current affinity group but also recognize that we need to have conversations within select small circles that do not encompass outside influence. We also need to widen the circle so it is not just lawyers talking, that we include other professionals, legal assistants, non-profit representatives, in better understanding our role and identity within the law.

I am looking forward to this as a healing journey and I invite those that are interested to reach out to myself, Tina, or Justin Choi so we can begin building and growing these ideas together in the coming months and into the new year.

I hope you enjoyed reading through this piece. My apologies for the lack of brevity (as usual).

Perhaps I can focus on breaking down this administrative law argument now that I have gotten this off my chest.

Speaking Notes – BCIT Diversity Circles – Immigration, Systemic Racism and Barriers to Student Success

My name is Will Tao. My Chinese name is Tao Wei. I wrote a post recently where I talked about being named after Victoria where I was born.  I am a Canadian immigration and refugee lawyer and a racialized settler on these unceded Coast Salish lands. 

I want to begin my remarks thanking Elder Alf Dumont, Ocean, Splash for their welcome and to reiterate that we’re having this discussion on stolen land and that as we talk about systems such as immigration we are talking about historical systems that were created to populate these lands with people who do not look like most of us in this room and that it was done, and continues to be done, with little to no consultation or input with the original stewards of the land, the Indigenous communities. I also want to thank Justin for being brave in sharing his remarks and for speaking for many silenced students. I could not have done what you have done when I was a student. 

I have been asked to address the context of immigration as it relates to status, belonging, and talk about my role as an immigration lawyer who works extensively with students like yourselves. Can I get a show of hands of how many of you are or were international students in the room?  [there was one]. I ask you to keep your hands up if you can. How many of you are friends with or have loved ones who are international students? [almost everyone]. 

I want to start by also acknowledging that immigration law and policy is steeped in colonialism and white supremacy. It is steeped in ableism and discrimination against those with mental health illnesses. It has created systemic barriers for women and those from other marginalized communities who do not fit the traditional check boxes of immigration. Both then and now. It is a reality that keeps me up at night and often leads me to both “seize up” and struggle to “speak up” to borrow the words of Canadian author, David Chariandy

It begins with history. Two remaining minutes is not enough to track the whole history of our immigration system but up front we need to name these things and giving light to some of these events.

  • 1906 immigration to open gates to British Subjects/Europeans – 96% European;
  • In the late 1800’s early 1900’s – Anti-Race Riots/Head Tax/use of domestic legal policy/foreign policy to exclude people of colour – 
  • Black Canadians in 1911 were excluded and climate suitability was used as an excuse;
  • Asians were excluded in 1923- beginning a long period of family separation and closure of the borders to a majority of Asiatic migrants until 1947. 
  • Immigration was once the Office of Immigration and Colonization in 1917 before being transitioned into the Department of Mines and Resources in 1936. That is the historical underpinning of where you are at – as colonized bodies, mines, and resources for the European settlers who assumed this would be “White Canada Forever.”

My historical argument is that we’ve moved from front end barriers that were explicitly enforced in law to now back-end barriers or dissuading factors that are more implicit. This is done largely through a process of assimilation that unfortunately by virtue of your immigration statuses you are all subject to and must master to obtain the status, permanent residency, and later, citizen.

Today, you continue to see an area of law and policy develop mostly off the backs of coloured migrant bodies and lives, yet with little attention paid to the role of race and a reticence to actually addressing. 

You will notice the lack of Black students in the room. You have African colleagues with 80-90 percent refusal rates where in many European Countries you have those as acceptance rates. For you in this room, you have an Express Entry system that sorts you into pathways and gives you points based on your, age, and language – possibly assimilating you and separating you from the work you want to do and the community you want to work within. You face challenges as a student with a two-tiered system that examines your attendance, your transcripts,and your border entries in a way it never did mine. 

The amount of stress these outside systems provide, don’t begin to address the inner challenges many of you face as migrants with temporary status. Through my own family’s lived experience, I know the effect it has on your internal family lives, financial challenges, emotional challenges.  I know it is in your interactions on transit, your interactions in the classroom, within diaspora with those think they can speak over you because they have been here longer than you, and so much of this is due to ignorance or assumptions that we must work to displace. I know as someone who works in these spaces I can say “I hear you, I see you, and I feel for you.” I will do what I can to share stories and hold your truth to their power.” 

My final advice, particularly for the men of colour in this room and with the additional layer of migration status and all the culture and history it brings with us, is to do your own healing and form stronger bond with each other but listen carefully and honour the experiences of Indigenous matriarchs and women of colour in your lives. It is a process that will change your world view and ground you. I know it has for me. Thank you. Gan Xie.

Rethinking the Metaphoric Roxham Road – Why I’m Voting Strategically in Van South with Migrants and the Marginalized in Mind

In this piece I am going to talk about strategic voting or at least my own strategic vote this election. I also will touch on issues of anti-immigration sentiment/misunderstanding as it results from a shift towards populism.

There’s been a lot of good writing in this area. This isn’t my attempt to try and match that. I won’t be linking to articles, talking about statistics, or even going into the theory. These are my views and my views only.  There are experts that are far more learned than I am on these topics. Competency takes time and I am on the beginning stages of that journey. I am still (to be fully transparent) trying to ground and negotiate my own identity as  Chinese Canadian Han male on these unceded and stolen lands.

What I want to meditate on in this piece is to speak from my experiences and one I hope will influence other voters, particularly those who may share progressive values.  Even for those who maybe socially indifferent or fiscally conservative, I think there may be something worth discussing here.

Thinking Beyond “Me” and the Problem of Voter Apathy

I know that in capitalist economic systems the focus is always on the ‘you.’ In fact I noticed it I believe in one of the campaigns is aiming to think about this. The reality is, however, empowering the ‘you’ often comes at the need to oppress the ‘other.’ Or to reframe it this way – in order vote for what I want, I need to vote against what I do not want or that does not benefit me. I find this perspective deeply problematic.

If I am voting for myself only, I would likely be a fiscal conservative, socially neutral voter. I am a CIS-gendered, heterosexual male, who in the past has taken full advantage of the ‘model minority’ label often attached to those in my community. I run my own corporation now, so lower taxes would likely help me. Making more money, and paying less taxes would help me put a larger roof over my head – fulfilling Maslow’s hierarchy in the process. I could probably have kids earlier and put my family’s financial security first and foremost.

In short, I know that this system itself helps me. Whether or not I try and squeeze myself into the ‘Middle Class Canadian’ label the reality is I am okay with any Government. I would do fine.

But…. if I take a broader lens on the ‘us’ – understanding that my own financial career has been built off a legal system and off clients who do not have these privileges, I cannot simply vote without thinking of those impacted most by Government. Other than in my legal work (where I profit OFF government processes), I can largely avoid Government in my day-to-day life. Those who are lower income, homeless, people (esp. women) of colour, Indigenous, persons with disabilities, and the trans-community (among many other marginalized communities) who cannot. Their lives can not be detached from reliance and the active role Government plays in them.

One of the reasons I am so much in support of political advocacy to drive more voters (and hopefully in the future, candidates) from these communities to step up – is that they need to voice out their concerns – even when the larger majority holding power may not be listening. The primary concern right now, is that a very dangerous force of white supremacist, nationalist, populist thought leaders are threatening to rid our political system of those on the margins or use their mere existence to perpetuate their own power.

These groups include refugees, religious minorities, those with different sexual and gender orientations. This force sees as a threat, not an opportunity, the difference among us. The reality is, in some of these communities, the other is simply not present. They have grown up in homogeneity and cannot fathom the mosaic that so many of us champion and celebrate as ours. They hold much of the voting power of Canada and – similar to the U.S. and the last election- can not be underestimated. However, I am hopeful that our nation and the ideals we have built around can shed a positive light rather than a negative darkness around these issues of who belongs and what belonging entails.

Immigration and Refugee – Largely Misunderstood Through Exploitative Lenses

Immigration is being and has been misunderstood. Our current national discourse shows it.

  • On mass immigration –  the levels have shown very little movement over the past decade. We’re really talking about minor percentages.
  • On illegal refugee ‘crisis’  – as a country we are not even among the Top 10 refugee welcoming countries, nor are those seeking entry illegal by any legal definition. Much of what is going on is reflective of a United States system/global unrest outside of our direct control or created a result of our historical actions/inactions.
  • On birth tourism – where it would take a huge logical leap to consider
  • On jobs – where Canada has a low unemployment rate, no one wishes to do the jobs that migrants do, yet we still blame them for our challenges and abusing our systems.

Roxham Road, itself, on the immigration front is a perfect example of how we have forgotten our sense of humanity in the midst.

Our discussion of immigration, refugees, and newcomers – a large variant topic that encapsulates everyone from asylum seekers to new citizens – has been dominated by concerns over a small border crossing in the United States.

I have difficulty fathoming how individuals can feel personally threatened by the fact others want to seek safety and security – given all of us, somewhere down the ancestral line, did the same. I cannot balance the fact we blame them for doing harm on our societies while ignoring our own settler roles in harming Indigenous communities in ways much more deep-roited then the fact Nigerians and Haitians in some cases may be seeking refuge from ‘hardship’ instead of ‘persecution.’

Why do some Canadians believe that this land is only for themselves and not for the coloured, for the migrant, and the marginalized? We have gone a step beyond the indifference to an act of differencing them down to a level below us in order to raise our collective outrage.

It isn’t just by chance that these surveys have found Canadians are concerned primarily with non-white immigrants. I see this as further indication that we have replaced our overt racism with one through attempted justifications of policy over a system that itself inherently racist and upholds systemic racist systems. Those who study migration will know that the big tent that was initially created to populate indigenous lands was narrowed through law and policy when too many coloured and dark faces began to show up to complicate the intended narratives of “White Canada Forever.” If one looks at our economic immigration system today (the one always ‘touted’ by those pro-immigration) – these too are built on the privileging of young, able-bodied, English-speaking, migrants over the ‘other’ who will never meet the criteria. Many of these others are my clients.

Immigration – and this is something you will only truly experience once you work in the margins or have recent experiences yourself –  is more than just what we think of our borders, what we want workers to do for our businesses. Immigration is a deeply human act of moving, separating, integrating, and conflicting systems and identities. it is about assimilating, without understanding our colonizing actions. Refugees and other marginalized groups have taken the hit as a result of our system of trying to pick ‘good’ migrants and alienate ‘bad’ ones.

I find that it is the absolute low of lows of gutter politics to use refugees and other newcomers (who do not have a vote or political power) to drive one’s political agenda against them.  If my own accumulation of power requires other humans harm – psychologically, physically – I need to rethink my use of power.

I urge some Canadian politicians to deeply have this conversation of their privileges, who they serve, and who they are excluding in upholding dangerous rhetoric.

Voting Strategically for a Candidate I Believe In

This election I was facing a difficult choice. Why? Politics over the past decades has not welcomed people like me but instead distanced us into background, single-issue advocates. We (and the big tent I am using I am very well aware are marginalized communities of which I do not belong and may show indifference/harm to in my work) are stuck fighting each other and our own differences and not the collective systems that oppress us.

Yet, in the ways that populism has taken over, I have also seen a lot of light and potential. That some leaders are actively seeking to change the ways they lead and/or address negative change. One of those gems of light is in my riding of Vancouver South.

Ultimately, these past few days/weeks I  have looked at my neighbourhood of Vancouver South I looked at the coloured faces, the new businesses such as the amazing Filipinx restaurant I visited yesterday, and I asked myself – how can my vote help them. However can I foster their inclusion. What would I want if I were them?

In that light, I am going to be voting for a candidate that has demonstrated their commitment to equity and diversity, who is willing to stand up (and not look down) upon our values as Canadians. I want someone who will keep their constituent office open for newcomers and migrants to seek access, who is open/accountable, and who wants to widen the big tent of Canadian politics and ensure it isn’t one built on an “us” not “them” mentality. I want a leader who won’t accept the 30 years of model minority that I grew up in as a pathway to personal success but rather show concern to those who are seeking a voice and defend those voices. I want to vote for someone who when incidents of hate occur (as they will) or when we are forgotten in the political process, to remember their roots in Vancouver South. I want an individual who will have their eyes open to changing demographics, future challenges, respectful of our history, and willing to change the way we do politics.

I hope (and dream) of a Canadian politics that is able to serve as a balance to support marginalized communities in the same way corporate/economic forces hold up the majority (including myself). I’ll keep dreaming but until then keep on keeping on. I made to cede power, spend my billable time seeking justice rather than profit, but I believe we owe it to Our Creator to do this work.

Happy to chat with any of you offline about where I am leaning but I encourage all of you to look into the issues, where we’re going, and make a strategic vote for our collective future.

 

Learning to Take the L – Loss, Grief, and the Law

This piece has been simmering and marinating in the back of my mind for awhile now. Meeting a mentor last week who had at a crucial juncture shared with me his story of loss and this time shared his current work to reframe challenges as opportunities inspired me to finally put this down in writing.

So too did this piece where Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and his two brothers at the age of 10 shared some lessons on loss and grief with Anderson Cooper, who similarly lost his father at the age of 10, a brother to suicide, and at the timing of this filming, just recently his mother.

Cooper talks about a letter that Colbert wrote to him following the death of Cooper’s mother wishing him ‘peace and grief’ and Cooper talking about how how he is coping with the help of others and how death has changed the trajectory of his life.

Both Cooper and Colbert also shared their experiences of life pre-loss and post-loss. Colbert talks about this ‘big break at the cable of my memory.’

Before I get into my experiences I want to define ‘loss.’ I know loss – to it’s extreme meaning is death but there is certainly more than that. For others, loss can be as simple as failing a course or dropping the ball on a big assignment. I don’t think comparing losses does any good nor does such a process take into account the fact we all have different relationships with loss. Some of us are used to it through our life experiences; stories of lives started in refugee camps, foreign lands, or with an early chapter of loss of family member. Some of us suffer from PTSD from traumatic experiences and violence. Others have had loss through breakdown of relationships with close partners or other family that continue to linger in day-to-day life today.

However, and to certainly generalize but with some basis, I don’t think lawyers handle ‘loss’ as well as the general public. We are a group who tend to represent a pathway of some past privilege, in worlds where loss (losing) can seem so foreign. We come places where ‘things just don’t go wrong’ – a pathway we drew up and executed to a T. Our perfectionism as a profession and ways we address problems (usually through ‘covering our own ass’, or ‘risk mitigation’) doesn’t allow us to comprehend and understand loss in a way we need to grow and move forward.

Personally, I haven’t talked too much about the time I dealt with loss and almost purposely so.  I tried to give a talk at the Federation of  after it happened (probably too prematurely) fumbling around without having prepared any proper notes. I lost my train of thought and likely rambled something incoherent – the wounds being still so fresh. I can tell you that the Law was incredible during my most difficult times. Not the actual content itself but the people and the experiences from it. I was able to chat with countless colleagues, like the mentor I met this week, who were able to open up to me on their own experiences of losing a parent. From the unspoken and the feared, it became counselling. In fact, it was my introduction to the power of counselling before even seeking professional help to tackle it. I also was grateful to have the love of my partner, my best friend, my mother and sister. There were certainly a lot of moments that tested those relationships but we’ve become stronger through it. Again, some gratitude (of the type Colbert discusses) through grief. I remember reading ‘When Breath Becomes Air‘ and several blogs/podcasts to prepare myself mentally for that moment. I still was terrible unprepared but I think somewhere it added some foundation. It was the first time (in awhile) I remember being able to read non-work materials because it turned into words that were that important.

I went back to work two days after my pops passed. My pops was always someone who never celebrated successes, nor wanted a big deal made of things. I thought about his ‘business as usual’ and ‘never take a day off’ approach to things and followed his lead. Did I go back to work too early? Probably. Did I go through a proper grieving process? Probably not.  In hindsight, I would have taken more time. Yet, for me work gave me an escape. Today, I need an escape from work on some occasions to handle the effects of loss.

The biggest and most negative effect of loss and how it may affected me – and it was shared by Colbert and Cooper – has been the breakdown of memory, the compartmentalization of the past. My memories pre-2016 are nowhere as vivid as my memories since. I cannot piece together some of those moments. Much of my three years of law school have been blurred into probably a 60-second clip of 5-second memories. Truly the shards of glass and flashes that Colbert speaks to. I can barely remember my pops as an unsick bastion of strength and confidence and that grasping of fleeting memories is scary. It (has) worsened year by year.

On the flipside, it has given me a short-term loss cycle. I think it has allowed me to work through daily losses or mistakes quicker. I recognize, forgive, blame myself, but move forward in a very short period. I still have trouble grasping loss or mistake (a trait since I was a kid) but I am trying to breakdown my walls and let others in to help. One thing I recognize (and something I am working on) is not burdening the femmes in my life (including my mom, spouse, sister, and various colleagues) with these but to seek more comradery within men’s circles to chat about this as well and put aside our usual ego-dominate conversation.

It is ironic, as in my legal work, I push and press my clients to discuss their trauma, to open up, to try and detail moments and feelings in ways I cannot do myself. I still straddle that line of experience of being able to say ‘I know what you are going through’ but realizing that grief and loss is so different for each of us that I truly cannot, nor should, carbon copy my experiences on others. The gratitude I do have from grief is that it has opened me to be able to listen to the grief of others and spot it or the roots of it. I have not a psychologist but I have been able to understand the psyche behind unspoken words, reading between the lines, and some of the ways anxiety, stress, despair, depression, and fear can affect us. I don’t know if I would have seen it without my own personal experiences.

At the same time, because of how sensitive I can be to grief and suffering I partner with more senior practitioners and others who may be better at driving the legal analysis and are less on the client-facing side. I take short-term financial L’s (co-work with a senior colleague or work with an assistant) so we can have space to discuss how to separate law and emotion, prepare strategy and help address the burden (and responsibilities) of representation.

A lot of my work moving forward, through this early-mid stage of my career, is about ‘going on,’ not avoiding suffering but embracing it (paraphrasing Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air). Recognizing and appreciating the double-edged sword that is being more sensitive to the negative emotions and feelings of suffering (never being able to become ‘indifferent to it’ as some have tried) but that this is motivating for one’s work. That through tough days we should as Genia Ginzburg writes in Journey Into the Whirlwind (which I read in high school and re-read after my pop’s passing) still live and find someone each day to be grateful for.

I can truly say that I have found gratitude, through grief. Gratitude that the power of our profession that it is one that allows us to address the grief of others, of our clients. Moving forward that my work will always encompass an honest approach towards that grief and a vulnerability that I will share with my clients to create an environment where we can grow through our challenges together.

To close, I also want to offer myself and my time to anybody who is grieving or going through loss. I know I will be but a mere stranger. I don’t hold a psychology degree nor will I inundate you will self-help material. I can just assure you that I will be a listening ear to your hardship and struggle. Law is built off of confidentiality, privacy, but the search for resolution and understanding – platforms that too much of our world today cannot co-exist.

Meanwhile, personally, I will still move forward to learn to take more Ls. Holding the hands through someone you care about into the fire is hard – but ultimately it is our job and a resiliency, we need to build up and learn. Mistakes, losses, and grieving from those mistakes and loses (those we can control and those we can’t) is part of our job description.

I thank you all for reading through this and jumping into my world. I’ve show you a lot (some would say too much) but I do so with the hopes of de-stigmatizing the conversation around loss, grief, and the law.

With love through gratitude,

Will

 

On the Realities of Racism and Hate – Some Preliminary Thoughts Before a Dialogue

By User:Xil – merged parts of File:Alaska Vista Icons.png, File:Japanese Traditions iconshock.jpg and File:Iconshock wildwest.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9038091

I am grateful to have been invited to a dialogue on the “realities of racism and hate in your community” with Parliamentary Secretary Ravi Kahlon in just less than an hour. Interesting enough on the invitation email wording of community. I was invited to this dialogue as a member of the South Asian community.  I take this role seriously but with simultaneous trepidation. I am but an adoptee of this community – a product of a best friend’s family, some education in South Asian diasporic history I was fortunate to receive at UBC, and community efforts that have given me space to join an important South Asian initiative – the Punjabi Market Regeneration Collective.

The South Asian community is one that has welcomed me but the fact that I am taking a seat from potentially many other voices challenges me. I will do what I can to share from their experiences but it is their voices and experiences that need to be channelled and put in front. These are the voices of South Asian international students who face constant harassment from classmates and institutions. These are the voices of South Asian women who have to operate every day among patriarchal structures and impossible expectations that I cannot begin to say I understand. Nor is it my place to do anything but listen and support.

Personally, I am the result of a deep-down broken but outer image intact cis-gender man who spent 30 years of his life trying to fit the ‘model minority’ mold. I am Chinese Canadian. I had the privilege of growing up here in Canada and being born here. I have had the privilege of education at a special west side of Vancouver program in high school, an amazing undergraduate program at UBC, and law school in Ottawa.

My parents and their sacrifices of taking on the first generation racism largely insulated me from those experiences for most of childhood growing up. While I still have bitter memories of lunches alone clutching my thermos, being unable to properly skate on the ice rink and fit in with the hockey-playing kids, or asked to sell poinsettia flowers so our school could go to outdoor wilderness trips – even my stories of prejudice ooze of privilege.

I have spent an entire life code-switching to whiteness and ‘fit’ and have largely benefitted from it. I have been able to join so many communities, obtain opportunities, blend, in and anchor myself utilizing my other intersectional factors (economic, gender) to compensate for the colour of my skin. I don’t buy any ‘society does not see colour’ explanation for this. It is not because I am a special Asian.

There are several Asians (and South Asians) like me who have had these privileges and benefits that we frankly do not often use to meaningfully assist in helping destroy the very system that allowed us to succeed at the expense of others – white supremacy.

While individually we may not be racist to one and another or do a darn good job of hiding our feelings, race is behind the scenes influencing so many areas including my own profession of the law. How else do I explain the fact that we are only now seeing the ‘first’ racialized Canadian Bar Association president, only recently saw our first Asian president of the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia, still see our judiciary with less than low single digit percentages in racialized lawyers.

The legal system instills this idea that we are all white knights, controllers of the law. We save our clients. We control destinies. These misconceptions all could not be further from the truth. First, this is a language, a show, a play that we get trained like actors to participate in. It is a language that on a day to day basis still forces me to seek translation. It is not what I grew up with but as an economic and career reality I have chosen to take on.

Further, this work comes at the toiling work of oft-underpaid legal assistants (many of colour or lower economic privileges). We become hypercritical enforcers of our own colonialized offices with us as masters. I struggle with this every day. I have seen myself become a criticizer where I am a natural sympathizer. Again, a transformation that is not for me but another code-switch that my own work requires me to reconcile.

I also cannot reconcile when those close to me who are newcomers go to interview for entry-level positions and are told they are overqualified or may struggle with ‘transactional work.’ Where interviewers and recruiters know they are Canadian or permanent residents but still ask them when they came here as if they have less entitlement to be here because they are immigrants, when other than the Indigenous – we all are.

Overt racism is on the rise in this city too. I would say that at least once a week I am on a transit bus ride or at a Skytrain station where someone is muttering something about Chinese, South Asian, and immigrants. I have had a Muslim friend assaulted on a Skytrain for wearing a hijab. I see my Jewish friends constantly concerned about being able to practice their faith and symbols of historical hate peppered on walls directed at them. Women are constantly sexually harassed in this city and those of colour even more so.

I think about Indigenous brothers and sisters seeking just some sort of autonomy to not have the very culture that was silenced/destroyed, land that was stolen from them now co-opted into a celebratory and token gesture of ‘thanks for reconciling with us.’ In practice, very little is being given up or actually acknowledged in terms of historical wrongs that need redress. When it takes more than just a small donation and actual power-ceding – we retreat back to our silence and inaction.

I also see that unless we created safe spaces, not forced spaces, where we can navigate these complex issues together, without Governments hovering over us or forcing a result. I think of stories told to me by Indigenous elders of resolving issues in a longhouse behind community closed doors and wonder if we can try this out within our many communities. We need time, space, and resources for this.

Going back to the fact I am an Asian man at a South Asian consultation I ask:  Why do our communities need to be silo’d, planned for in silos, and broken down into silos?

I understand that it helps our polling and voting, but how is this going to help tackle intragroup conflicts or lateral violence. We may be fine and dandy now but as soon as a limited resource is put on the table (land and funds) it becomes a game of tug-a-war that invokes the worst of colonial practices and unresolved trust issues. We ultimately need to start sharing our experiences and building coalition between us. Who is going to start this process and give us the keys to the room?

Why are there few white people at the table? We cannot talk about race and hate without white supremacy, white privilege, and power. When we take either a subset of community leaders with time and resources to attend but don’t require the attendance of those in powerful places to receive these messages – where do we actually ultimately go? Who is going to create space for POCs at these institutions (which are both progressive and conservative). Is it also ultimately fair to have people of colour take on the burden of the emotional labour of sharing our stories and volunteering?

Also, who is going to finally take a serious stab at media (news and radio) portrayals of our various communities. The pundits and talking heads (of which I realize I am also slowly becoming one) who purport to know and see all behind their laptop screens and lattes.  We occasionally become sound bites or share little tidbits but where is the space to share our stories and to highlight the overwhelmingly positive narratives. If we allow our stories to simply become those of crime, tragedy, and wrongdoing how do we win over support?

I will be reconciling with myself during today’s session. I am reconciling every day when I try to organize for communities. I am trying to read more theory to tie in these experiences but even those high-level thoughts are hard to dig in on the ground level. Maybe we start small. Talking, sharing, expanding. Rather than trying to sweep race and hate under a rug maybe we reveal the cover and be frank and honest about the way things are.

Multiculturalism is ideal. Racism is a problem and reality. Our inaction is our greatest sin. 

WT.

Taoyanzhen, Qiu Jin, and My Great-Grandfather’s Parable to the Great-Grandson He Never Met

First – to Frame

I have been trying to write this piece for over seven years. I had this constant struggle with whether this story should remain a family secret/dinner table fable or whether there was a greater utility in sharing it publicly.

I have decided, ultimately, there is. First, I was inspired by my mentor Dr. Henry Yu who had this piece written about him in the Georgia Straight which he delves into family and delves into his motivations for doing the work that he does. Second, recently, I have read a lot about China and the Chinese Canadian diaspora in Canadian media (about the country and the people, to be specific and certain) that discords from my own experiences and threatens to paint over the history of myself and many others with broad brush strokes represented by a current politics many of us want nothing to do with.

For first and second-generation (and many further past generations – I like to call us all X-Gen’s) our histories are inextricably tied and always will be tied to our ancestral homes. China (and for others Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau) will always be a home for us. Our way of living of bringing in the past into our present (the same missions we’re fighting in Chinatown, Punjabi Market, and Indigenous communities across) is for us, our form of existence and survival as settlers between homes.

For many of my friends with Southern Chinese roots, these stories come from cities such as Xinhui, Kaiping, Panyu, Enping and Heshan. Sadly, I have yet to visit these towns although it is high on my to-do list to study how families made it generations through distance and exclusion. I know that every time I watch documentaries where youth or Vancouverites go back to meet their elders, speaking their Cantonese, Toishanese, Hakka, I get the feels. Even though I don’t speak Cantonese, I share the same warmth. My own ancestral dialect of local Shaoxing is a weird mix of Mandarin and Shanghainese that I find delightful and complicated (as a kid who grew up with an ear for Shanghainese, and a mouth that spoke on basic Mandarin). Our dialect (coming from the South – Nanfang 南方)as opposed to the North (where standard Beijing Putonghua 北京普通话 comes from) – also leads to understanding bits and pieces of Cantonese.

Linguistics is just one example. When we look beyond what divides us, we find some similarities like this that we forget to appreciate and cherish. This extends to those who come recently and who may bring with them different means than many of us originally came with.

Through writing this piece and sharing just a bit of my Chinese Canadian story, I hope that for those people and pundits who cannot separate the physical space, the people, and the Government, that gives a different lens into past, present, and future. That they can give space and room for Chinese Canadians to share their stories and to recognize that with over a billion people there exists more than two sides to the coin of China and how the country and culture has shaped our identity, historically and continuing today.

We are not monolithic, we are different, coming from different political histories, levels of historical and current affluence (of mind as well as money), periods of migration – that all sought Canada as our country of opportunity and new beginnings. That did not change then and does not change now. Our stories are worth sharing because they are unique, different, and for many of us – extremely humbling and full of our rooted values of filial piety, respect, and community. Again, there’s so much that ties us together and makes us each other’s keeper in ways we have not yet begun to appreciate.

Here’s just a slice of my mooncake I hope to share.

Taoyanzhen, Shaoxing – My Paternal Ancestral Hometown

This is where the grandfather and the great-grandfather were born. Taoyanzhen (陶堰镇)Shaoxing (绍兴)Zhejiang Province (浙江省).

When I was young, I thought before that my ‘ancestoral home’ was Shanghai (上海)as that was where mom and pops grew up.  I still remember no mention of Shaoxing in that brown shoebox project my dad helped me with in elementary school where he wrote over it in beautiful calligraphy, ‘My Ancestral Home’ (我的家乡).  In the few vacations I made in the city as a child, teenager, and later young adult – it never felt ancestral or ‘Chinese.’ It felt like Paris. Other than the food, to be honest I was often left craving more. I was a bigger fan of the historical attractions of Beijing than the fast metros of Shanghai.

I found what I was looking for in Shaoxing, and specifically my ancestral hometown village of Taoyaozhen (about a 15-20 minute taxi ride outside of the City Centre). For those that are wondering, – yes the ‘Tao’ is the same ‘Tao’ as my last name. This is a village of people theoretically related to me (although many have intermarried so last names of various type are in abundance). I almost/kind-of had that Punjabi-wedding meet and greet feeling that many of my close friends speak about.

Here is the look of one of the main ‘streets.’ The river serves as a canal with draw bridges. It’s very, very working class. Toilets are a hole in the ground. The whole town a series of intricate mazes and bridges.

For more info about the town check this out link in Chinese.

Going to Taoyanzhen in 2012

When my pops and I went to Taoyanzhen, Shaoxing in 2012, we took a taxi to town entirely lost. My father had been a bit hesitant about going. To him the ‘past was the past,’ and he feared that we would either find nothing from the past or find something that would create additional familial burdens.

After getting off the train from Shanghai (about two and a half hours away) and hopping into a taxi,  a couple individuals in town saw us get off with our Western backpacks and told us we needed to check in with Master Tao (陶老师) who would know how to help us find the information we were seeking. Turns out, Master Tao was the town historian and archivist. In fact, he was doing a family mapping project for the whole village. He sat down with my Dad and proceeded to tell him about his father and his grandfather – from memory. It was a fascinating history for someone who studied the filed in undergrad. It turns out my grandfather left town for Shanghai really early at the age of 12 and never looked (or went) back.

Master Tao showed my father the project he was working on. I remember he also treated us to the famous local Shaoxing corn and I had my first bowl of Shaoxing yellow wine (more on food later).

The project ended up being a book (that my father has and now sits at my mom’s house) and a DVD that he provided me the last time I went there in 2016. I have a copy of the family tree on my laptop which I look at frequently (to the amusement of my spouse Olivia).

My late father was quite the amateur photographer. I love this photo of the Master’s glasses with his work sheets. The photo is nice, so it must have been my father who took it (I’ll own up to my bad photography). At that time he had not yet finished the full collection (the DVD which he gave Olivia and I in 2016).

The Master took us on a short walk to my Great-Grandfather’s home. I don’t think I ever appreciated how good I had it (even in the basements of my childhood) until I saw these humble beginnings.

While I am sure the room looked different then, thinking about my great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, and my grandfather, together in the space I was now standing gave me shivers. Looking at it now still does.

After touring the (literal) ancestral home, my father was re-introduced to and spent time bonding with my father’s cousin (his grandfather’s younger sister’s daughter [could be wrong on generations here]. I believe she hadn’t seen my dad in some thirty years at that time but had faint memories of going to Shanghai on a few occasions to see him.

After a great meal, the next day my father and I went exploring around Shaoxing. The famous author Lu Xun has his ancestral home near the City core so we went there and shared  plate of famous Shaoxing dishes, some referenced in Lu Xun’s work. Shaoxing food is known for it’s liberal use of Shaoxing Yellow wine. It is one of my favourite cooking ingredients – although sadly the ones found in your local Asian grocer bear very little resemblance to the real thing. Shaoxing also has some of the best fermented vegetables and fresh green tea leaves I have ever had in my very biased opinion.

I remember being happy – having convinced my father to make this trip and learning more about him and history that I had spent 24 years of my life entirely oblivious to.

Qiu Jin

This woman needs no introduction. She is one of China’s first feminist heroes, considered China’s ‘Joan of Arc.’ Without butchering the importance of her life story (which the New York times partially covers in their Overlooked series here), she was important as she fought against the patriarchal imperialist society of the time and her own arranged marriage where her spouse subjugated her to a house wife role. She ended up cutting her hair, dressing like a man, and going to Japan to study and eventually became a revolutionary martyr. In coming back and trying to organize she ended up back in her ancestral home town of Shaoxing. She was eventually murdered (beheaded) by the Qing troops who caught up with her in Shaoxing.

Some in the west are familiar with the following stanza of her famous poem written as she was facing death:

“Autumn wind, autumn rain, fill one’s heart with melancholy.”

I want to share another poem of hers called Mistake (失题) where she drops deep metaphors of war, and the failures of masculinity. She writes in traditional five character stanzas where are deep and beyond my level of Mandarin comprehension but I’m slowly working through. Her work is truly something else.

失题
登天骑白龙,走山跨猛虎。
叱咤风云生,精神四飞舞。
大人处世当与神物游,
顾彼豚犬诸儿安足伍!
不见项羽酣呼钜鹿战,
刘秀雷震昆阳鼓,
年约二十余,而能兴汉楚;
杀人莫敢当,万世钦英武。
愧我年二七,于世尚无补。
空负时局忧,无策驱胡虏。
所幸在风尘,志气终不腐。
每闻鼓鼙声,心思辄震怒。
其奈势力孤,群才不为助。
因之泛东海,冀得壮士辅。

 

Other than hometown, you might be wondering what my own story has to do with Qiu Jin other than the shared hometown. That is where my great-grandfather comes in and plays an interesting (and very complicated role).

My Great-Grandfather’s Parable to a Grandson He Never Met

I’ve never met my great grandfather. In fact, I only have met my own grandfather twice (once on a longer extended trip) before he passed. He had my father when he was quite old (sadly, I only realized this about two weeks back when I was doing the math based on the family tree).

My grandfather was a teacher and educator and wrote about language retention techniques (if I am not mistaken). Some of his textbooks written in the 1980s are still for sale in China., online today. Apparently he left Shaoxing and Taoyanzhen when he was 12 years old for Shanghai.

His father, my great-grandfather, was a man named Tao Yun 云 (Chinese word for ‘cloud.’) He also had two other names Lusheng 鹿笙 (Chinese word for ‘deer’) and the nickname 梦 (Chinese word for ‘dream’). I definitely got the ‘clouds’ and the ‘dream’ portion passed on to me (not so sure about the deer).

All of this was captured in Master Tao’s family tree book which I mentioned I had a digital copy of, but here is the excerpt for my great-grandfather (29th generation). We’re 31st and my future kids hopefully 32nd.

On that first trip to my ancestral hometown, Master Tao told my father that his grandfather Lusheng Tao (he called him), was quite a renowned teacher/mentor. He would teach several youth/teenagers/adolescents to read and write, the classics, and became their mentor. It appears he was a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ guy, wasn’t considered famous but yet he was well-known in the community.

Doing some further research online, I found out he was also the teacher of one Zhang Xiyu, who also became a writer/publisher, strong feminist advocate, and later was a victim of the cultural revolution the late 1960’s. As a side note, I would love to know from others/historians/individuals located in China if he mentored and taught more students.

Another one of my great-grandfather’s students was – you guessed it – Qiu Jin. When Tao Master told my father, I was listening but my command of the language wasn’t good enough. I missed a lot of the important details. However, I did learn this one parable about what happened to my great-grandfather with respect to Qiu Jin.

When Qiu Jin fled the Qing imperial forces (as a result of her counter-revolutionary activities) she apparently landed on my great-grandfather’s door steps seeking refuge. After all, he was her mentor. I am not sure if this was just when Qiu Jin was a youth or after she escaped her abusive relationship and went to Japan – something I am eager to piece together.

Apparently my great-grandfather, looking at his wife and son at that time, decided he couldn’t do it. Harbouring a fugitive would mean that his head would also be on the cutting board. After Qiu Jin’s eventual death, it was a decision he came to highly regret. I was told by Master Tao that he eventually became mentally ill because of this regret and passed away quite young in his late 40’s.

There may be a bunch of ties that I am creating  myself here – but this story and this parable speaks volumes to me. I love and have a passion for teaching, mentoring, and being a bit of a ‘behind the scenes’ fixer. I constantly worry about situations involving pitting family and public interest. I like watching those I work with elevate their careers. I am passionate about de-stigmatizing mental health issues and to see a direct family connection to the effects of the illness is eye-opening.

The most eye-opening one is to my work now as an immigration and refugee lawyer. Clients are entering my office often times seeking respite and refuge from their lives. I open doors for them and hear their stories, but there are honestly and definitely times where I have similarly regretted stepping up in difficult situations. In that sense, I empathize with the conflicts my great-grandfather have but try to will myself to step up so I do not have that regret moving forward. It is still a constant battle and I look to more courageous colleagues for some of the brilliant work they do as source of inspiration.

All in all, I feel so bonded to this great-grandfather I never met.

Full Circle – Returning with Olivia

My father passed away in early 2016. In June of that year, I went to China to pick up my then fiancee (now spouse) Olivia to bring her back to Vancouver so we could formally start our lives together here.

I wanted to show her my ancestral home as she had so graciously done for me on several occasions since we met in 2013.

We found Master Tao again and told him the unfortunate news of my father’s passing. He immediately showed us the work he had continued to do since we last saw him four years ago.

During the trip, and walking around Shaoxing, I also introduced Olivia to Qiu Jin (her statute lies around this beautiful Shaoxing lake-bend) who she read about in history books but didn’t quite relate to. She still doesn’t quite share my obsession over everything Qiu Jin, but I definitely see that strong feminist characteristic in her as well – one I have to work on elevating against my own often-bad patriarchal habits. I like to think of Olivia, who volunteers with Atira and constantly challenges toxic masculinity in environments she is in, as a Qiu Jin-like figure in my life.

That day we also returned to my great-grandfather’s house. I felt that beautiful blue ray of light seem to shine down from the heavens. The house was even more dilapidated (and now abandoned), but it still has withstood time.

The next day we met up with my father’s cousins and their extended family. It was a surprise trip – they gathered all my related cousins and they treated us to amazing home-cooked Shaoxing food. I learned that my father, without our knowledge, had kept in touch with her and supported her when she lost her own husband to illness with money. That was the kind of guy my father was – super low-key and caring to a fault.

Our Stories Matter. Take Time to Listen to Them.

Where does that leave me. Back to the start.

These are our stories. These are the stories our parents often times didn’t tell us, many times because their parents did not tell us. These are the histories that we didn’t grow up with but are slowly, with age struggling to reclaim.

In the same way your parents talk about the amazing war heroes of the time, and revolutionary business owners who were the big firsts, we try to uncover the stories of our past. These stories don’t come easy. They come scarred, broken, often times in languages we barely understand.

Yet these are our stories. Without these stories there is no us. There is no migration. There is no diaspora. There is no rich cultural “Canadian mosaic” that brings you foods and your friends. Behind this,  without key decisions made at different times by different family members, we may have stayed in these villages bearing our names, never to have known Canada and this Canadian life we are so privileged and grateful to live.

I, for one, am very touched by Indigenous brothers and sisters who always start off meetings by welcoming others and channelling the ancestral spirits from the pasts. What, in our modern day, has led us to do the opposite? To stop welcoming others, and to try and ignore and or speak over the stories of others to write our truths over theirs.

Give space. Open up your minds to the fact a world outside of these columnist’s reminiscing on their 80’s tourist trips to China exists. Similarly open up your minds to the fact there are substantial populations in China who cannot share their stories or even their day-to-day truths like I can so freely do here.

While in Canada, never forget that behind each face, each building, each passport bio-data page, each mixed race individual, each dish, each piece of clothing – is a story.

We should champion each other and each other’s stories and carry on the legacies of our parents, elders, and the ancestors of the homelands of our present and past.

My pops. God rest his soul. I love this photo of him and it also scares me how I’m another 20 years from looking like this (although he was always much better looking than I am).

Reflections from the ACCT Conference: Chinese Canadians Need to Organize Around Community Mental Health Resources STAT

Jason Isolini [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
This past weekend, I went to Calgary to join over 100 fellow Chinese-Canadians to attend the inaugural “Action! Chinese Canadians Together (ACCT) Leadership Conference.

It was a weekend of deep healing and reflections on identity, progress, and the many barriers that still exist for us as a community. Among the highlights were a youth panel, organized by many of my younger colleagues, to deep dive into the inter-generational challenges that made some of the previous sessions difficult to set through.

Many of the youth (including those well into their 30’s) felt as though their leadership efforts were not yet being recognized and that speakers were speaking down to some of their lived experiences and re-enforcing patriarchal modes of thinking.

Personally, I did observe that older male voices tended to dominate speaker panels and the small group sessions meant for sharing weren’t always accessible to those with quieter voices or more nuanced/conflicting perspectives. The concept of co-existing ‘commonalities’ and ‘differences’ came up several times during the afternoon.

What I also saw  was therapy in session – as tears were shed, especially by many of the younger participants, but in particular when speaking to the challenges of growing up Chinese, growing up mixed race, and the difficulties connecting to both our parents and grandparents generation and mainstream society. Many elders in the room, afterwards, came around to commend the youth and discussed how they too had tears from listening to these perspecties.

I think these type of spaces and conversations are so important, yet more and more mainstream society is asking us to think beyond, colour, race and identity that we don’t lose sight of how crucial these are to our DNA and our understanding of the individual ‘self.’

I would also argue that, to contrary, until we have these conversations with ourselves and between ourselves (and other oppressed communities including the wisdom of Indigenous descendants to this land) we will not be able to simply carry our ‘play the game’ mentality to positions of power and privilege in Canadian society in a manner that does not cause us to re-enforce those oppressive systems on others, and does not tokenize us away from our communities.

The Mental Health Crisis that No One Is Talking About and the Stigmas Within

The most incredible experience I had was in facilitating a session with Olivia Chow on both story-telling and community organizing. I was one of several facilitators and was assigned to a group from Calgary.

I won’t be discussing any names and organizations (as per the community agreement made before starting the panel and in my small group that I enforced).

I will say that during the story-telling session (after I was socratic-method called on stage and bombed a story-telling example), a speaker in my small group opened up to talk about their own challenges with mental health, how they had a personal connection to suicide, and how this issue affect their Chinese-Canadian clients (i.e. the ongoing ‘stigma’). After a group feedback session of coaching, they felt empowered to share this story with the larger group of attendees. It was very powerful and relatable to the individuals there to here them call us to action – and in fact led to a stakeholder in the room connecting with them to offer support.

I can’t remember the exact facts that were shared, but apparently a subset of Asian Canadian (or was it Chinese Canadian youth) are 1.5 times more likely to suffer from mental health related issues. Another stat that came up earlier in the conference was that within a period of I think it was 20-30 years, mental health will become the greatest factor inhibiting our economy. This places our community at the forefront of a risk to our economic and personal well-being.

We had discussed in our small group that we wanted to bring these theme of mental health into the second part of the workshop. The second part of the workshop was discussing the ideas arising from our stories and our own work (largely around Chinatowns) and turning it into some sort of organizing goal.

We came up with an organizing statement, theory of change, ally mapping, and tactic generation process to try and start up a “Chinese-Canadian Mental Health Co-Op” on the premise that these individuals and organizations present wanted to lobby the Alberta Provincial Government for funds prior to their budget this Fall and provide culturally and linguistically-specific funding.

Before even coming up with our organizing statement, a simple intro around the room revealed everyone…. (self-selecting, as they choose to work on this project) had their lives touched by mental health. It ranged from elders who themselves were going through mental health issues from abusive relationships, to mothers unable to work full-time to take care of a child debilitated by mental health, to seniors feeling isolated from community, to youth and international students going through these challenges. As we went around the room, it was clear that for many of us this was the first time we were sharing on this ‘taboo’ and stigmatized topic. The mood was somber yet resolute.

It was clear that there was a lot of work to be done in our short planning session.

First, as Chinese Canadians we realized we needed to organize on this by creating inclusive personal spaces to hold these conversations. We discussed how the encouragement of young adults to pursue careers in social work and counseling would also help deal with the issue of resource shortage. We recognized that most of the available mental health resources online are in the English language, creating a major barrier to those who are unable to find names and that these resource lists are often in big cities and not shared province or Nation-wide. I heard again (as I have heard time and time again from my clients) that school and work counselors and resources are not nearly enough to address these issues.

As we were organizing and planning, it was clear that a plan was do-able but that such a plan appeared to replicate the usual process of (1) lobbying government through petitions; (2) a cultural communications strategy highlighting prominent Chinese-Canadians suffering from mental health issues; (3) surveys and committees struck up to study the issue and highlight the scope of the problem; and (4) events to raise funds and awareness.  To implement these in practice would require a lot of connecting with stakeholders and persons with power, many of whom may not be vocal champions or see the need for resources directed at one particular cultural community.

We ended up setting up our tactics after getting group consensus but not being able to map these out in terms of timelines. We could have used another three hours, which unfortunately weren’t there.

I am sad that the workshop is over but I do hope someone and some ground of people will take the championing of this forward in Calgary and other cities across Canada. Especially given the tragic news of 9-year old Amal (cited by the speaker in their talk as well) I think it is only appropriate that we were beginning the planning process there.

I have tried to, below, summarize some of my thoughts arising from the session:

  • Mainstream mental health organizing efforts, although well-intentioned, are not culturally or linguistically-specific enough to serve the Chinese-Canadian community. Furthermore, there are challenges with inclusivity and especially finding professionals who understand cultural-specific components of these mental health-issue (such as PTSD, migration-created separation anxiety, filial piety, importance of physical home and community, etc.,)
  • When mapping our allies, several allies are neutral (possibly neutral-negative) but both have and do not have power. This lack of understanding of their positions (due to lack of approaching them on this issue) hurts our organizing.
  • Social media can be a powerful way of spreading awareness but also a contributor to mental health issues. This double-edged sword must be kept in mind as we plan;
  • There is a two-step challenge: (1) fighting to get rid of the stigma; (2) finding tailored solutions that do not end up pitting our communities against each other from precious/limited resources. We can’t simply be firefighting the next suicide without addressing other trigger points from a settlement/sociological perspective (such as racism, inclusion, social isolation, etc.)
  • We have a surface level understanding challenges international students are having with anxiety, depression, and other mental health-related issues – and are painfully unaware of the type of challenges our seniors/elders are having with isolation and costs of living. I think this supports the work of organizations such as Yarrow in Vancouver and to facilitate inter-generational conversations that may be therapeutic for both elder and international student youth.

I have been trying to do some work recently and have been open about issues I myself have had (from seasonal depression to life-long anxiety [you wouldn’t have guessed it from my media appearances and work as a litigator]). Speaking about it publicly and openly with others has truly made me realize and appreciate the spectrum we are all on. Similar to the concept we were discussing about shifting allies over by one category rather than expecting a dramatic shift, I think we can also tackle mental health with the same approach of not trying to eliminate these issues entirely but rather facilitate a more supportive environment for those whose lives are negatively affected and/or debilitated by it so they can improve their lives incrementally.

More broadly speaking, as someone who assists many individuals ranging from minor depression and anxiety to severe mental health issues, that our institutions, rules of engagement, and our societal pace can confound problems. I am also very aware that we do not even publicly appreciate a small percentage of the problem that is out there.

I am also very grateful to journalists such as Wanyee Li (The Star) for writing pieces such as this one to bring awareness to the broader community about the efforts taking place in the diaspora to tackle this.

Most journalism these days rarely ever shows  or espouses the dual concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘opportunity’ so to see it from those who write or reflected in the communities they write about is beautiful.

I look forward to seeing how to get involved in this conversation in Vancouver in a culturally and linguistically meaningful way. I do hope that more public resources.For one, I think more “Big Brother/Big Sister” style mentorship programs between old generation and new generation Chinese Canadians, whether it is systematically organized or just done in informal networks.

What are your thoughts? Do you want to share your experiences or discuss? Would you like to collaborate to make this issue a more prominent public health issue and break free from the stigma?

Feel free to email me at willtao06@gmail.com