Category Archives: Racism, Discrimination, and the Law in Vancouver – An Exploratory Blog

This sub-blog will explore the elephant in the room, racism and discrimination, as it pertains to the City of Vancouver and Legal Developments in the Larger Canadian context. Follow me as I learn this area of the law and reflect on our city’s past, present, and future!

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.

My Colonial Name is ‘Will’ – Here’s the Story of My Other Name ‘Wei’

“It’s Not What They Call You, It’s What You Answer To” –  ascribed to comedian W.C. Fields (but I received this teaching through an April Ryan talk, March 2019, Harlem)

The Story of My Many Name Changes

I have been through a few name changes in my life.

I was born Wei Tao. Later in elementary school at my insistence (the product of trying to fit in/bullying, and apparently too many “hi wei/highway” jokes) I asked my parents to legally change it to Wei William Tao. Sometime in late high school/early university, I replaced William (which I found too British and formal) with Will – the short, cooler, ‘One Tree Hill’ version of myself.

Recently ‘names’ and ‘naming’ have come up a lot in my practice and in my life.

The past two weeks I have been working on a file where an individual from overseas is seeking to change their name with immigration due to a change of practice from their home country.

I have had another very close friend have challenges changing their maiden name.

I also have found myself looking at political campaign signs over the past elections wondering why certain individuals emphasize their first name over their last, or how someone could have an anglicized Chinese name. I wonder about white people individuals adopting Chinese names with so much meaning and power, without acknowledging their erasure of our own names and languages.

For example, the history of how Chinese surnames were anglicized is rift with discrimination and hate, yet today people from ethnic communities might see the whitening of surnames as a privilege. The assigning of biblical names was also a huge part of the residential school genocide (see here for an excellent article from 2016 by Maija Kappler on indigenous name reclamation).

Finally, just last week a group of community organizers and I had a discussion where we talked about our names. Again, it was almost an after thought. We were all about to head out, just doing last minute small talk about various race equity topics when an individual I admire and consider a mentor and leader stated “one thing we haven’t talked about are the names we ascribe ourselves.”

My Chinese Name – “Wei”

I was recently at a workshop/retreat where I was prepared to introduce my name as “Will.” The first person to introduce her name, a Chinese Canadian woman, introduced not only her English name but also her Chinese name and talked about the meaning of that name in relation to an ancestral relative. Had it known been for her braveness in bringing her birth name into the space, I would not have as well. I didn’t do a great job in describing why that name is so important to me. I wish to do so here.

I have a beautiful Chinese name. Wei (维) is the first part of Wei Duo Li Ya (维多利亚) which means the Vic in Victoria. I was born in Victoria – my name means the land where I came into this world. Will (other than the cheesy saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’) has literally no meaning to me. My birth name has a meaning subscribed to the struggle my parents went through as early migrants, facing overt racism, struggling up Mount Tolmie to support the family. Even through all this hardship and struggle they wanted me to adopt the physical space/place in which it was happening.

By abandoning my name “Wei” have I abandoned those stories and erased them from my being and my family’s collective memory?

Out of every one in my family I was the only one to primarily stick with his adopted white name. For me, there was always this fear and concern that if my name was seen as Wei Tao there would be assumptions of me being an immigrant, a newcomer, and someone without language skills.

The last time I heard “Wei Tao” was a few years ago at a university alumni event. The name tag had Wei Tao and I distinctly remember scribbling Will over top of it in Sharpie Pen. I had apparently won a raffle in which they called out “Wei Tao” and it took me twenty seconds to realize that it was actually me. Needless to say they almost pulled a new name out of the hat before I stood up to claim my prize.

My Legal Name vs. My Given Name – and the Legal Profession

As a lawyer, there are many moments that make you pause and think. Generally this is a good thing when you are in this profession. For me, this occ every time when I am writing or signing my name on documents. Right now, the rule I apply is when i am required to put my legal name (i.e. swearing affidavits, or submitting Access to Information Forms, I put my name “Wei William Tao”) or everything else I will use “Will Tao.”

I actually love the names of my immigration clients from different places around the world. I particularly love the “Singh,” “Kaur,” and biblical ceremony involved in Punjabi-Sikh names, the way certain Euro-Russian families will add an a or not to surnames of their parents, of Iranian and Sri Lankan names of multiple syllables, and of Latinx names where they pay hommage to both sides of the family. I also love learning about Indigenous names – particularly when the story behind the name and the clans on different sides of the family are introduced. I am proud of the Tao (cc: my post here about my ancestral home town) but why am I so reticent to adopt the “Wei.” I am in a profession where marketability, presentation, professionalism, and competency is everything. Why is Will Tao more competent and presentable than Wei Tao .  

Also, as a legal advocate – how do I fight for community – to ask for more non-white names of spaces, to ask for colonial names to be removed (a process known as “un-naming”), if I cannot do it myself, to my own name.

“We Cannot Pronounce Your Name”

My spouse is known to most as “Olivia.” She had previously chosen another English name but was told to change it.

For a period of time she reverted back to her Chinese name Xiaoqin when she was in English classes, adopting the short form “Qin” for hopeful ease. A Korean-Canadian instructor told my spouse, to change her name. She said “people could not pronounce it” and drew a metaphoric “You know how Japanese were called Japs” to try and convince her [Trust me, I was in disbelief as well. This is a true story].

This was not the first time this had happened. She had first chosen her original English name in China when the English instructors asked everyone to choose a white name creating many “Michael‘s” and “Mary‘s.”

Not too long ago, her Human Resources (HR) recruitment class, the HR instructor out of the blue asked “I have been wondering why are there students with two names – a Chinese name and an English name beside it.” Perhaps this comment was coming from the perspective of some one with privilege of having two white names. Again, one of the many microaggressions that students (particularly migrant newcomer students) face in their early education in Canada and in the job market. These are the types of implicit biases (one’s I have probably adopted myself on the other side reviewing resumes) which continue to hold down people of colour at staggering impacts. See article here from CBC in 2018 talking about this.

Also – on a related note – what should we do about the mispronunciation of our names? While it is a meaningful gesture to have our names reviewed with us before introduced, it is even more meaningful when we have a person of colour who speaks the language share it or even space to discuss it’s origins rather than to just have us cringe at it’s mispronunciation or give a “nice try” forced Starbucks-pick up line smile.

Asking Our Spouses to Take On Our Names

The history of Chinese women with respect to maintaining their surnames is a fascinating one. I won’t repeat it but direct you to this New York times article here. 

The usual practice is to have children take on the surname of the father, carrying on the practice of patriarchy.

Recently, someone I really admire in the community told me he went against cultural norms and had his son take on his female spouse’s surname. This is beautiful and I only hope more individuals can do things like this, particularly where the histories of naming is so patriarchal.

We also need to give space to women who choose to adopt their spouses white surnames. Too often in our communities, we are ostracizing women for doing this while not recognizing we are doing the same thing with our own first names but more importantly in the way we act in our workplaces and to other white dominant culture spaces.

Would I Be Brave Enough to Change My Name?

One mentor during the community organizer meeting talked about when he messaged his professional network and changed his name back to his Indigenous name from his adopted name. He mentioned it was quite a change.

What is stopping me from the similar liberation?

I look at the name Wei and I should feel love and a sense of place and grounding but I see foreignness and the judgments of those who see,  hear, and try to repeat it. The last time I heard. Just earlier this year, I published my Chinese name in a piece I wrote for a legal publication. It felt liberating but truthfully part of me thought that if I put that name it would be less “Google-able” and separate from my legal work.

Over the next few years I will be having this internal discussion with myself. Feel free when you meet or see me to try and call me “Wei.” Maybe even the dread, “High Wei.” Perhaps you can even honour some of our cultural traditions, and call me Tao Wei (which my mom does) with the surname first. I invite you to see how I react, hopefully with more familiarity will come more acceptance and more courage than I have historically show.

My Future Kids’ Names

I am not sure if any other young couples (with no children but plans to have them) have this activity where you “brainstorm” your future children’s name.  Sometimes it will be a random experience or place we visit and we will decide that this sounds like a good name. I likely, and maybe unfortunately, will still have my future child adopt an English name. One thing for sure is it will be unique and have meaning.

However, we have decided importantly that our child will have a Chinese name. I am not sure yet how to give it meaning: Do we name our child after an ancestor? Take certain characters from different relatives? Take two characters from a chengyu (Chinese idiom) to give it additional meanings? Unfortunately, my own knowledge of the Chinese language also fell victim to my early assimilation efforts as the second-generation product of first generation migrants. I will have to lean on my spouse more, but perhaps we all should.

Perhaps we should start learning these names and ask consent for the sharing of more stories about our names. Perhaps, ending on where the mentor started, we should have a longer conversation about this.

“When we lose our names, we lose the words given to us to define ourselves” – Me

Five Tips for Immigrants to Protect Themselves Against the Media’s White Gaze

“Our lives have no meaning, no depth without the white gaze. And I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.”

– the late, honoured, Toni Morrison

I read a lot of stories and news reports involving migrants and newcomers. A lot.

I also am very conscious of those who are writing those stories and are not immigrants or the direct descendants of immigrants themselves. I’m speaking particularly about white people. If this makes you feel somewhat uncomfortable, I have a recommended read before you continue on here.

Whether sub-consciously or not, white people write about the coloured bodied or immigrants in a different manner than those lives are experienced by those who share their stories. There are different variations of how this looks. For some it is in condescension, others exoticism, others in a sympathetic-leaning white knight or virtue signal. There are other writers who ostracize, criticize, and expose colour and migrant lives in a way that they would never dare do to a leading business person, politician, or celebrity. Perhaps it is the fear of lawyers or the open vulnerability of migrants, yet this is a growing concern and one that needs to be addressed on a more systemic level. From the U.S. cheating scandal where there was a clear difference in treatment shown between writing about the celebrity actresses and the wealthy daughter of Chinese migrants, to the overwhelmingly graphic details of her life and upbringing to the constant stories of migrant and coloured wrong-doings that splatter across front pages in this countries – I notice it as a visceral reality.

This week I have been looking a bit at the way Courts want to open document transparency and how media is taking an active role in trying to open up migration cases to the public’s attention. Indeed, a local journalist recently tried to open up a refugee hearing, a private proceeding meant to protect the identity of a claimant, in order to try and get the details of a gory crime to the public. These migrant scoops  serve a public appetite for those who are not us, here with us, doing things we would like to admonish them for doing. They are a white Canadian gaze on a increasingly changing definition of Canada, and a fear of losing it’s historic ‘whiteness’ particularly in mainstream media. I can’t blame the authors and I am not blameless. I too actively do work that profit off migrant mistakes, a stark reality of the colonial work that pays my bills and rent. Media, as an institution, unfortunately also does the same.

 

Why Migrants Should Be Careful Giving Media Interviews

In the past, I have provided my perspective on why Media Must be Cautious Covering Individual Immigration Cases

Today, I will change this to the migrant perspective. I have deep concern that migrants, in attempting to feed the narratives of journalists, are exposing themselves to not only personal risk but also compromising their own immigration status in Canada. I have a few pieces of advice for migrants, newcomers, refugee claimants and others who might be facing this double vulnerability.

TIP #1:  Recognize Journalists are (Generally) Not Your Friend – They Are There to Make News and Gain Views

This is the starting point. I am able to provide interviews now (including some I openly regret giving) to try and provide a voice for migrant communities. However, I am not a migrant myself and am not at risk when I speak and share experiences. When you are an international student, when you are on a work permit, when you are making a refugee claim – your voice is tied innately to your immigration status. Your published name alongside your transgressions is enough to have attention drawn to your immigration file from authorities.

Part of the work journalists are increasingly engaged in is advocacy. Their primary goal (other than sales and readership) is to try and gain market share of a topic. Several local journalists have gained notoriety by exposing wrongdoing and having their work lead to changes in Government policies. While much of this may have great long-term implications, the short-term implication may be use of you as a poster-person for a problem.

Remember, not all exposure in the context of vulnerable persons – is good exposure.In some cases, journalists may be in fact looking for a migrant voice to express disdain/anger towards other members of one’s own community. Particularly in this day and age where expressing one’s own non-popular views comes under heavy scrutiny (particularly around issue of race/status), it is a common journalist trick to get someone else to say it or better yet – someone within the same target community.

It is not all negative. There are several cases where the media have been able to put external pressure on the Government and encourage them to stop removals and grant extraordinary relief. In most those cases, there was some active litigation or strategy incorporating the media. These cases did not come from the mouths of individuals being interviews as part of some pending investigation.

I know saying no is difficult. Many of us are enthralled by the opportunity to be on TV – but think twice before agreeing to be in the media and expose your life to the media’s gaze.

 

TIP #2: Misrepresentation Doesn’t End at PR

One of the things I have seen recently is several immigrants, with their published legal names, admitting to having paid for their jobs or to working excessive hours in order to qualify for permanent residence. In some of these cases, it appears that the individuals have now obtained permanent residence and possibly even citizenship.

An individual admitting that he or she may have paid for part of their qualifying work experience can have major impacts on permanent residents and even citizens who obtained permanent residence on the basis of this information. Paying for one’s job or receiving support from an employer to falsify duties would be considered material misrepresentations that have a direct impact on the assessment of a permanent residence application. Many of the large scale frauds in which permanent residents are finding themselves  Immigration Appeal Division involved third-party/employer wrongdoing.

Remember that s.40 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act covers both foreign nationals and permanent residents:

Misrepresentation

  •  (1) A permanent resident or a foreign national is inadmissible for misrepresentation

    • (a) for directly or indirectly misrepresenting or withholding material facts relating to a relevant matter that induces or could induce an error in the administration of this Act;

    • (b) for being or having been sponsored by a person who is determined to be inadmissible for misrepresentation;

    • (c) on a final determination to vacate a decision to allow their claim for refugee protection or application for protection; or

    • (d) on ceasing to be a citizen under

      • (i) paragraph 10(1)(a) of the Citizenship Act, as it read immediately before the coming into force of section 8 of the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, in the circumstances set out in subsection 10(2) of the Citizenship Act, as it read immediately before that coming into force,

      • (ii) subsection 10(1) of the Citizenship Act, in the circumstances set out in section 10.2 of that Act, or

      • (iii) subsection 10.1(3) of the Citizenship Act, in the circumstances set out in section 10.2 of that Act.

  • Marginal note: Application

    (2) The following provisions govern subsection (1):

    • (a) the permanent resident or the foreign national continues to be inadmissible for misrepresentation for a period of five years following, in the case of a determination outside Canada, a final determination of inadmissibility under subsection (1) or, in the case of a determination in Canada, the date the removal order is enforced; and

    • (b) paragraph (1)(b) does not apply unless the Minister is satisfied that the facts of the case justify the inadmissibility.

  • Marginal note: Inadmissible

    (3) A foreign national who is inadmissible under this section may not apply for permanent resident status during the period referred to in paragraph (2)(a).

  • 2001, c. 27, s. 40

  • 2012, c. 17, s. 17

  • 2013, c. 16, s. 16

  • 2014, c. 22, s. 42

  • 2017, c. 14, s. 25

For citizens too, when an individual obtains permanent residence and later citizenship by virtue of this fraud, revocation proceedings that be initiated. It is a little difficult to trace with all the Citizenship Act amendments but a good summary is below:

Status of a person post-revocation

If the person’s citizenship was revoked due to false representation or fraud or knowingly concealing material circumstances during the citizenship process only (e.g., lying about residence in Canada during the relevant period), the person becomes a permanent resident as per subsection 46(2) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Revocation in such situations does not itself jeopardize the right of the person to remain in Canada; however, the person must meet all obligations under the IRPA. For the residency obligation under the IRPA, the five-year period begins on the date the person becomes a permanent resident. If the person’s citizenship was revoked on the grounds they became a permanent resident by false representation or fraud or knowingly concealed material circumstances, the person will revert to foreign national status. If the false representation or fraud or concealing of material circumstances was with respect to a fact described in sections 34, 35 or 37 of the IRPA, the Federal Court, in certain cases, may also declare the person inadmissible and issue a removal order.

If the person is a dual citizen and the person’s Canadian citizenship was revoked due to convictions for terrorism, high treason, treason, or spying offences, depending on the sentence received, or for serving as a member of an armed force of a country or organized armed group engaged in armed conflict with Canada, the person becomes a foreign national.

If the person, who is a foreign national, is in Canada once citizenship has been revoked, the person is in Canada without status. The person may be reportable under subsection 44(1) of the IRPA and may be subject to removal from Canada.

In short, there are major implications of disclosing something so seemingly innocent as confirming a history of having been exploited. It is a double-edge sword that applicants face which makes it pertinent that proper advice is obtained before publicly speaking on these types of issues.

 

TIP #3: Know about the Process of Contacting CBSA Criminal Investigations and Applying for Work Permits for Vulnerable Persons

There are many options for workers and other individuals who have been abused and taken advantage of. This includes work permits for vulnerable workers and for victims of family violence.

Many individuals also unaware that Canada Border Services Agency has a Criminal Investigations program that operates as an arms length investigation where there is fraud, criminal activity, and other sensitive situations that may require further investigations. While they cannot provide immigration relief – they may be much more sensitive than the media may be around your personal situation. Of course, adequate legal advice should be sought before approaching CBSA Criminal Investigations – which may involve a more holistic review of your immigration status in Canada, weighing pros and cons of approaching Criminal Investigations. There may be some benefit to making a written affidavit statement before approaching authorities to set out the material facts. See also Tip 5 below.

 

TIP #4: Know that  IRCC/CBSA Tracks the News

Immigration (IRCC) reads the news. Indeed, that is how much of their programming responds to changes – through gathering feedback from social media (Twitter), reading news stories, and meeting to discuss them. If your name is part of an expose, you can best believe you are on IRCC’s radar. From my perspective, until you  understand the legal ramifications.

I still remember one time I was outside CBSA (unable to enter the detention center because it was full) and tweeting about it. Before I could even enter, the Senior Manager came out and said he recognized the problem and saw my tweets.

I have been able to leverage social media somewhat successfully to push change but I can tell you that the analysis, the criticism, and the choosing what to say and what not say is an art. When your name is provided to a journalist for the front page – that control is now out of your hands.

In admissibility hearings, the filing of newspaper articles as evidence before the Immigration Division and Immigration Appeal Division is very common. Your own words and actions could create challenges for you down the road, particularly when you try to introduce new evidence and sworn testimony.

 

TIP #5: Seek Independent Legal Advice

I recommend that every migrant asked to speak to the media about their personal situation and in doing so disclose sensitive personal information take adequate steps to seek independent legal advice. This advice can guide you as to whether there can be some advocacy benefits to media. A legal advisor can also help you determine whether your personal immigration matter requires steps such as confidentiality motions in Federal Court, simplified procedures for anonymity, or applications for private proceedings (among other steps).

I do hope that more institutions exist on both sides – not only to try and push more nuanced journalism and train on some of these ethical issues for journalists, but also to utilize some of that knowledge to provide media training for newcomers and migrants. It would also be beneficial for more established organizations, unions, and support networks to consider helping shield individual migrants where necessary or provide media spokespeople/translators to assist.

 

Conclusion

I am a friend of the media and consider many journalists friends, supporters, and colleagues. I support open transparency and generally am glad that our democracy is one where we can talk about the crevasses. Ultimately, I think the more we talk about rather than ignore issues of migrants, the better our collective understanding will be and the barriers that exist between us will be broken down.

I also know that much of what journalists do may not be conscious. It may not be a product of their own ill-beliefs or fantasization about migrants but rather the economics of the newsroom or the culture of seeking the strange or exotic. I expect (and hope) many of my journalist friends will be taken aback by my words, start justifying by stating they have a spouse who is a POC or that they are a POC themselves, and they would never do that. I’m going to say that we all do this – and this is the norm. We do not offer newcomers, migrants, and marginalized community the same expectations of privacy, representation, and voice that we do those we work with, befriend, and hold to higher authority. This is a historical and naturalized human response.

Whether we can unlearn it and choose – on occasion – to put our own careers and scoops on the side to allow an interviewee to seek legal advice or community support before speaking to us – is how we will demonstrate how far we can go to changing the role of journalism as projecting society’s white gaze.

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).

‘I Don’t Get to Call Myself An Ally’ – But I Can Aim Towards Becoming One

Tomorrow, for the first time I am speaking on the topics of decolonization and intersectionality. I don’t think I have ever been as nervous for a talk. It is a topic I have been engaged in for the past several months, but it still feels to me a new term. However, there is some value into speaking to the newness and humility. That is why I eventually put my name forward and agreed to speak.

It has been a long time coming. A year ago, I don’t think I could have spoke on this topic let along would I have put my hands up to even volunteer. The pathway to learning about colonialism, decolonization, intersectionality, racism, and discrimination in our society has been a difficult one. It has forced me to confront my own current role (and definitely my past roles) in perpetuating my privilege and my power in not only my ‘colonial work’ but in the way I may have approached community service. I lose sleep now in ways that I did not before – because I am exposing myself to my own shortcomings and the painful truths I conveniently avoided in years past.

I am glad that it is slowly stripping away an ego that I think the process of being a lawyer almost inherently instills. I feel more humbled and I thank the learning I am doing and the social activists I am meeting for transforming me.

This process has highlighted mistakes I have made in the past in this regard.

For example, I donated money to a local organization on behalf of my law firm thinking I was doing good while simultaneously shirking a previous responsibility I had to that organization, as a volunteer. I realize that I was donating to cover up my own guilt and that goes against the very principles of decolonization that I am now learning about.

A second mistake I made was for a long time this law blog had an Indigenous logo that a non-Indigenous friend designed over. That appropriation of culture was entirely inappropriate. Even now, I am aware my logo is Indigenous and I am not – something I need to be extremely careful about as I consider the direction my blog goes and the societal/policy issues we engage with. I think that by engaging an Indigenous artist Diamond Point, we’ve made a step in the right direction but Indigenous recognition – much like, can very easily turn into lip service with no corresponding action.

All this to say – I don’t get to become an ally – just by reading a few pieces and attending a few workshops, giving a few talks, writing a few tweets, and making a few donations. Becoming an ally requires an investment in time, but more importantly a humility that this is a fight I care about but a fight that ultimately I need to support my Indigenous brothers and sisters in. I need to advocate but more importantly listen and be present when listening.

I had a colleague tweet in reply, not so long ago to a post of mine, that I also needed to show sensitivity when talking about things such as the residential school experience or the experiences of Indigenous women, as the very bringing up of these themes could be triggering to them.

As lawyers, we love to talk, to write, to share. It almost seems like the test for good advocacy is whether you have been to Court recently, what level of Court,  what policy issues, and what media opportunities. The first two months of this year gave me some incredible platforms but frankly I did not do enough to use those platforms to shift conversation or give light to underrepresented and more deserving voices, especially Indigenous voices. Indigenous issues are still so peripheralized and othered in mainstream media – through a lens that more often than not dehumanizes.

We seem more engaged with global events that have little effect on us, but that generate clicks and false outrage, than we do with local suffering that we are all collectively responsible for as settlers on stolen land – which should generate real outrage. It is as if those problems are our Government’s and that ‘reconciliation’ has solved all problems. From what I am seen and heard, it hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface.

When it comes to tomorrow’s talk on decolonization and intersectionality – I plan to share with these young impressionable minds of the amazing RADIUS program I am speaking to – my journey and my stumbles.

I also very much aspire to this idea that decolonization cannot be a metaphor for general social change, social justice, and anti-colonialism/oppression. If we water down decolonization, or worse yet, forget decolonization needs to come hand-in hand with indigenization (and not just of mind and rhetoric) – we may do more harm than good. I am also aware that this process will involve ceding of power, privilege, and land. Anything else, and it turns again into rhetoric and feel good excuses for our continued settler privilege and justifications for modified colonal appetites. We also need to come to global understandings of indigenizing that also doesn’t allow for the term to become homogenization.

Canadian indigenization – and where it comes from is historically grounded by systemic and full-scale wrongdoing that sought to wipe out Indigenous culture. Indigenization in another context, for example a country that believes in protecting and preserving one’s indigenous roots at the expense of newcomers or racial intermixing, can become problematic and the basis of racial/ethnic supremacy.

I think the position we come from and the model we develop in Canada will be very unique and we have to be careful to reconcile that with other world views and with the world view of newcomers. Introducing Indigenous issues and history to newcomers will become a major priority of mine, once I go through my own learning process.

On the topic of intersectionality, we need to also develop a Canadian model that takes into account Indigenous women, as a foundation for our BIPOC perspective. Indigenous and two-spirited women have had their identities marginalized and it is routed in the aforementioned colonial policies. Decolonizing will help highlight and tackle intersection issues.

Parallel, and simultaneously, we need (and I am grateful we are starting to see) the rise of powerful women entering newsrooms, media, politics, law, and other area of influence to highlight the structural, political, and representative intersectionality that marginalized and minority women find themselves in as a result of the narrowed patriarchal lens which creates male-dominated viewpoints or allows on some women in on our major conversations.

Our Canadian understanding and study of this concept is so behind, that on major issues – such as Karen Wang and recently, Jody Wilson-Raybould, – no one even brings it up. This gap in analysis (coupled with the consistent racelessness and neoliberal ‘multiculturalism’ espoused by those in positions of power) wipes out the experience of women of colour. This is unacceptable and as a man of colour, I bare my share of the blame for not tackling our own community stereotypes here.

To conclude, where I started, I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues, but I am not an ally (yet). I don’t get that label easily. I may never get it. I need to be listener, a repenter, and learner, a more humbled down human being. I need to use my voice and rather than sit silently while I watch the narrative be shifted, use my voice and privileges to shift the narrative to places where we need it to go.

Some of you will be sick and tired of me writing about race, taking as comedian Aamer Rahman wrote about “white person this, white person that.” On this point, I want to share the recent writing of Sandra Inutiq in her piece Dear Qallunaat. The headline says it best.

‘Recognize and admit your power and privilege and the fact you are benefiting from racist systems’

Even as a non-White settler, I have benefit from it too and I need to be more aware of this. Similar and parallel systems that made my ancestors Han Chinese and scholars in China from (my late father’s side) relative affluence and education made me benefit there too.

It’s time to strip away ego, recognize and admit privilege, and cede power and land back to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. In the process, I trust that the empowerment and deconstruction of barriers for BIPOCs will naturally occur. Canada will be a more equitable, equal, and truly diverse place.

With peace and love.

Will

Opinion: We Need to Start Writing a Chinese Canadian Narrative for Ourselves

Vancouver,_Chinese_new_year_parade,_2005

A survey of recent media reports from Vancouver and increasingly from Toronto show a worry trend of the reviving and recycling of historical “yellow peril” arguments that many of us hoped t21st century Canada had largely left behind. One of the central reasons for this revived narrative the very real affordability crisis affecting Canadian metropolitan cities. Few can deny that foreign money, and with that money from China, as one of the world’s dominant foreign powers, undeniably factors into to some debatable extent.

 

However, rather than focus our collective attention on foreign money and acknowledge the global/cross-border nature of the phenomenon, reductive arguments have instead led to the “public shaming” of bad apple wealthy Chinese investors, bad apple Chinese-Canadian businesses, and even, very unfortunately, Chinese-Canadian politicians who have all been treated as a threat to Canadian culture. In many cases and accounts, the Chinese is dropped and all Asian-Canadians are lumped into the same brewing pot of public discontent.

 

The challenge with many of these accounts of China is that it simplifies what is probably the most complex country and complex sets of histories, politics, and migration patterns on the face of the modern world today.

 

Chinese-Canadians arrived in Canada through different waves from different geographical locations, coming with ultimately different purposes. In the late 1800’s, we came to assist the building of this country with our bare hands to take jobs that no one else wanted – building the railroad to our eventual subjugation through anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation imposed on us in the early to mid-1900s. Later, once the anti-Asiatic immigration policies were let go, we came for opportunities – often men before wives, to find a new beginning and a new-found respect. We started coming not only from one province in China but different provinces. Later, we came to escape sensitive political environments in the diaspora at a time of domestic uncertainty – referring to China during the period of cultural revolution and later Tiananmen.

 

Today, albeit often with a little more money and a few more options, the vast majority of Chinese immigrants still carry with them the dream of providing for a safer and more stable environment for their families and children. Yet somehow the timing of their arrival has reignited in us a discontent, anger, and frustration. I would argue that this frustration is not with them as a group but mostly with ourselves and escaping our own cycles of discontent with being unable to achieve a comparable level of financial freedom. The Maslow foundation of a roof over our heads (representing security and health) appears slipping from us but available from them. We know that this is an oversimplification but the pure visceral experience of wealthy and successful Asians creates a corresponding dissatisfaction.

 

But let’s step a minute here and think about what this all means for the Chinese community in Vancouver as an organic whole when we espouse and promote such narratives.
I believe these narratives that are being imposed on us are having unmeasured and untold effects on our community’s cohesion. Asian-Canadians of all generations and nationalities are struggling to align themselves where the debate pits us against our family, friends, and often times even against ourselves and our fleeting and challenging attempts to balance our cultural hertiage. Some of us are taking this opportunity to band together – to form advocacy networks within our professions and for our causes. These groups provide us the opportunity to bring together like-minded individuals with shared experiences to promote our resilience.

 

Others, and sadly often newcomers, international students, and those without financial resources, feel shut out of dialogue and ultimately the scapegoat for the public. Many feel discriminated against in the labour market – interviewees interested only in their connections to wealth and clientele and not their potential to do good and do better. Others do not know where to start in integration and end up starting their own businesses, many times far too early and without the mentorship of well-established businesses to guide them through the rules and regulations of doing business. To those observing from afar this creates more examples and narratives which create continuing cycle of public distrust, misunderstanding, and feelings of non-acceptance.

 

Others will leave Canada altogether and abandon their Canadian residency to return to their home countries in Asia. I am sure, for some observers, this is only desired outcome but it is one that I believe ultimately represents a two-way failure in integrating new Canadians.

 

Where does that leave our “Chinese-Canadian” community? Ultimately Fractured.

 

Each time a story comes out about a wrong-doing of a Chinese individual, business, or community we cringe a little. We make excuses – “they must be a newcomer’, “they don’t represent us”, “they are disgracing us”, but ultimately we feel as though our already weak skin is dented. We build our own shields. Step away from politics. We keep silent, we stay subservient and ultimately we internalize our feelings into our own hatred towards our brethren. We adopt the majority mob mentality and later on become instruments of their narratives for as long as they need us, which usually is not a very long time.

 

There are other negative effects. Indirectly, we are seeing, particularly in the labour market, an unwritten expectation that being Chinese you must be fluent in the language and you must have wealthy connections as your value add. The stories of Canadian businesses, under the leadership of individuals who are not Asian, eager to take advantage of foreign capital has been underreported compared to the shaming of companies with Asian leadership. The experiences of local politicians of Asian-Canadian descent suggest you will be scrutinized – which itself serves to dissuade many of us from stepping into an important arena for change.

 

From my perspective and truthfully the way I see it, there is no Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, or other generational difference that needs to have any relevance in the Canadian diaspora. I believe that by entering the borders of Canada we should recognize we are coming to new home one that can heal fractured lines and see commonality where others only see and impose conflict. I believe we have a duty and responsibility to pay tribute to those Chinese who were the first-wave of immigrants, speaking dialects we may not be able to understand, but ultimately served as our pioneers. I believe that by entering Canada you subject yourselves fully to the laws of our great nation, and that harmful practices or understandings should be left behind.

 

If we can put aside our differences and see the funds of some of the wealthier immigrant compatriots not as a burden on our society, but as a resource that can be re-invested into our own social services, I think the picture would look different. If we can harness the resources and entrepreneurship of the young Chinese (Korean, Japanese, Mexican, you name it) international students and direct their energies into partnering with struggling Canadian businesses, non-profits, and encourage them to take leadership roles – are we really threatened? I would suggest we are enhanced as a country.

 

If this is indeed what we want – we need to put aside our visceral observations that there are appear to be more individuals with black hair, brown eyes, and tanned skin  (which there will inevitably be as we create new inter-cultural relationships and offspring) and instead view all of them as newcomers to our Canadian mosaic with the capacity to help nation-build.

 

Those harmful narratives looking simply at an individual’s country of origin and numbers simply do little but promulgate hate and fear in a time where less of both would do a whole lot of good for our country.