East Asians in Canada have been subjected to increased racism and xenophobia since the news of a novel coronavirus began to spread globally in January.
Some of the first examples came on public transit, where East Asians faced glares and harassment simply for daring to use the service. Then, Chinatowns throughout the country were abandoned, much like during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Most disturbingly, East Asians have been physically attacked in COVID-19 related hate crimes. In mid-March, for example, a 92-year-old Asian man was subjected to racial slurs in a convenience store, and then was assaulted outside, being pushed and striking his head on the ground.
In recent weeks, allegations of xenophobia have made their way to the top of Canada’s governing system.
On April 21, Derek Sloan, the member of parliament (MP) for Hastings—Lennox and Addington, put out a video on Facebook calling for Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, to be fired for her handling of the response to COVID-19. Within this video, Sloan states, “We sent an email out today asking: Does she work for Canada or for China?” Tam was born in Hong Kong.
Sloan’s comments sparked immediate backlash from community groups, and prompted the creation of the ACT2endracism, a national network intended to “address the rise of COVID-19 related racism in Canada.” In an April 27 press release, one of the network’s members, Walter Chi-yan Tom of the Chinois progressistes du Québec, stated, “This is race-baiting at its lowest. We cannot allow those who lead, or aspire to lead a national political party, to fan the flames of hate in our country.”
Politicians across the spectrum have also condemned Sloan, with Conservative MPs in Ontario nearly-unanimously voting to have him booted from caucus if he fails to apologize, which he has yet to do.
Yet this supposed united front between Conservative politicians seems to be motivated less by genuine concern for fighting racism, and more by a desire to punish Sloan for crudely verbalizing what the party believes, making explicit what is supposed to remain unspoken.
Most of the commentary on Sloan’s call for Tam’s resignation has focused on one line from a single video he put out among many other existing statements, emails and videos. Sloan has used the nature of the coverage of this video to say he was misrepresented. In reality, he only comes off worse when examining the totality of his comments on the government’s response to COVID-19.
Sloan’s justification for calling for Tam’s resignation, and asking who she’s working for, rests upon a few points he has made repeatedly: 1) China has lied about both the severity and duration of COVID-19 within the country; 2) the World Health Organization (WHO) has been complicit in spreading these lies; 3) the WHO has been complicit because they’re actually controlled by China, a supposed enemy of Canada and the west; 4) Tam has uncritically relied on the WHO to inform her decisions and advice to Canadians. Therefore, Sloan concludes, Tam’s ability to work for Canadians is compromised, as she is following an organization controlled by a lying, adversarial Chinese government. And so, Sloan asks, who is she really working for?
Although Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer initially refused to condemn Sloan’s remarks, he eventually stated, “Mr. Sloan does not speak for our caucus. I do not agree with his position, with what he said. That is not the position of our caucus.” Sloan, meanwhile, maintains that, “With the exception of my asking that Dr. Tam be fired, I’ve said nothing on the crisis that my party already hasn’t publicly stated.”
On this issue, Sloan is correct, as his question to Tam was based on the four previously mentioned claims, each of which Scheer has also made publicly over the last few weeks.
First, Scheer has spoken about the supposed “very credible evidence and allegations that have been levelled against the government of China in terms of hiding the true nature of the virus, the ability of it to be transmitted from person to person, the number of cases.”
Second, Scheer has stated he doesn’t have a “great deal of confidence that [the WHO] is a body that is solely looking at objective data as it relates to health matters.”
Third, Scheer claims, “We’ve seen examples of how the communist, autocratic, human-rights abusing government of China has had an inordinate effect on the WHO.” He has also stated that, “It’s becoming more and more clear we cannot depend on China as a reliable ally, as a partner in our values. We need to re-think our relationship with China.”
Finally, Scheer has claimed, “This government has decided to base the majority of their decisions on evidence coming out of the WHO. We have had Canadian experts, researchers, doctors here calling for certain things, proposing alternatives to what the WHO has recommended. This government has chosen to ignore those domestic voices and rely more heavily on the WHO.”
On multiple other occasions, Scheer has also contrasted the government’s approach with that of “Canadian” doctors and experts supposedly being ignored, effectively positioning Tam and her team as foreigners in opposition to real Canadian professionals.
The same is also true of Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the two candidates in the Conservative leadership race most likely to replace Scheer. O’Toole was one of only two to vote against a motion demanding an apology from Sloan. The other was Sloan himself. O’Toole has also put out videos implying China is engaged in a conspiracy with the WHO, and has portrayed China as an enemy in a new Cold War. MacKay, meanwhile, has done the same, giving little hope that the party has any plans of abandoning its anti-China hysteria.
The similarities between Sloan and the rest of the party are further reinforced by looking at how even those Conservative MPs that publicly condemned him failed to really challenge his views.
Invariably, these condemnations focus either on how Sloan’s “personal attacks” or questioning of “loyalty” are wrong, and should be avoided, even though they state there are “legitimate questions” that need to be asked of Tam and China. In essence, the Conservatives condemning Sloan focus solely on the conclusion of his attack, not any of the four arguments that brought him there.
This is problematic for two main reasons.
First, Sloan’s comments are wrong from top to bottom. As I noted in an article last month, “The anti-China narrative is based on falsities, and serves to distract people from the failure of neoliberalism.” This includes claims that China controls the WHO, that China lied about COVID-19 in the early stages of the outbreak and that China’s handling of the pandemic doomed western countries to the fates they’ve seen. All of these claims have been widely debunked, and the Conservative Party’s decision to focus on them is just a way to scapegoat China, an already convenient enemy.
Second, the Conservative response to Sloan undercuts any genuine attempt to condemn racism and xenophobia. Sloan didn’t say what he did because he misinterpreted the Conservative line. Rather, he took the party’s disturbing line to its logical conclusion, and pointed it at someone in specific. This is certainly a significant escalation, but it’s one made possible by the Conservatives.
Sloan’s argument only works if China is portrayed as a lying sinister force, with control of global institutions, out to defeat the west. This image of China is a longstanding one, with racist origins, and the Conservatives are doing their best to continue giving it life. Of course, as FAIR media notes, anti-communism has also played a role in the demonization of China, blending elements of “Yellow Peril and Red Scare.” Naturally, the Conservatives — along with members of other parties, to an extent — have been happy to engage in anti-communist propaganda as well.
In essence, the Conservative Party, along with the media, has played an active role in creating a toxic, xenophobic environment in Canada — an environment where Sinophobic propaganda is parroted as fact, where a reputable international organization is attacked because it dares to give credit to the Chinese government, where the idea that there’s a Chinese plot to control global institutions is accepted without objection.
If hate crimes around the country weren’t enough to warn Conservatives of the dangers the anti-China narrative poses, then a top Canadian official being questioned as to who she is working for should have.
The appropriate response to this realization would be getting on board with the rest of the world in working with China, and ending the demonization of a leading force in the fight against COVID-19. Instead, the Conservatives have chosen to issue mostly shallow condemnations of a rookie MP who, only a few months into his time in office, has failed to learn how to dog whistle as sophisticatedly as the rest of the party imagines they do.
Sloan is wrong, and he should be booted from caucus, but the rest of the party is complicit.