It’s been 20 years since the federal government officially recognized Asian Heritage Month, but Asian and Asian-Canadian workers have been contributing their labour – and organizing for workers’ rights – for at least 200 years before that.
From building Canada’s railways to working in lumber, mining and agriculture, and later in health and other care professions, Asians from a wide variety of ethnic origins have built and enriched this country and its labour movement from the ground up since the 18th century.
Anti-Asian racism in the workplace and in our unions dates back to those early days as well. In the late 1800s, Chinese workers in Canada were prohibited from joining unions. In the early 1900s, Canadian immigration laws were changed to deter and prevent East and South Asian workers from entering the country.
Fighting for workers’ rights
People of Asian heritage in Canada continue to work and organize for workers’ rights despite these challenges. In the first half of the 20th century, East and South Asian workers formed their own unions demanding higher wages and better working conditions. Into the 21st century, they successfully mobilized to change immigration laws, providing better working conditions for migrant caregivers.
Since 2000, a grassroots collective of Asian community and labour activists have worked through the Asian-Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) to build an Asian-Canadian labour identity and represent Asian-Canadian trade union members and workers in the broader labour movement.
Anti-Asian racism continues
Asian-Canadian workers, union leaders and organizers continue to contribute to Canada’s workplaces today. However, anti-Asian racism persists, as seen by a lack of representation in leadership positions, racial micro-aggressions, dehumanizing and divisive stereotypes, and the rise of anti-Asian hate throughout the pandemic. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of police-reported hates crimes against the East or Southeast Asian population increased by 301 per cent, and incidents of violence against the South Asian population increased by 47 per cent.
Our union is taking action
PSAC is demanding change by calling on the federal government to provide equity, diversity and inclusion training for all federal public service workers, and advocating for changes to the federal Employment Equity Act to address exclusion and discrimination in the federal public service.
We are also finalizing PSAC’s Anti-Racism Action Plan that will review how our union serves, mobilizes, engages and represents our Black, Indigenous, Asian and racialized members. Members will be able to learn and be heard through education sessions and workshops, a dedicated membership survey, focus groups, telephone townhalls, discussions and more.
We will be sharing a timeline of key moments in Asian-Canadian labour history later this month, and urge you to join us in taking action to combat anti-Asian racism – and all forms of racism – in our workplaces and communities.
Get engaged and take action
- Explore PSAC’s anti-racism resources, including webinars on anti-Asian racism.
- View PSAC’s anti-racism employment equity toolkit for members.
- Read PSAC’s conversation starter, “How can we tackle systemic racism and build equity in the workplace?”
- Check out the roundtable discussion “Interrogating the Union Politics of Equity, Inclusion and Diversity” organized by the McMaster School of Labour Studies featuring key Asian-Canadian community activists and union organizers.
- Participate in the Asian Heritage Month event May 6 organized by the Canada School of Public Service and Network of Asian Federal Employees showcasing the innovation and perseverance of public service workers of Asian descent and their impact across the federal public service, as part of its Anti-Racism Event Series.