Anti-refugee protest staged in Markham

Politicians in North York and the 905 held a rally over where to house asylum seekers


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Protestors at the Markham Civic Centre, the Chinese sign reads, ‘Forcing Refugee Resettlment on Us: Unacceptable!’

A neighbourly offer to look for extra space to house asylum seekers in Markham turned into a protest supported by politicians in Willowdale, Don Valley and Markham at the Markham Civic Centre on July 28. Some conservative-leaning Chinese-Canadians were pitted against counter-protestors, most of whom were also of Chinese descent.

According to Markham’s mayor, Frank Scarpitti, Toronto mayor John Tory initiated a conference call with Ontario mayors to find housing options for asylum seekers living in Toronto university dormitories and would have to be moved out for the school year. 

“Our offer to the city [of Toronto] was to see if there was anything that was available within the city [of Markham],” said Scarpitti. “It was just a neighbour helping out a neighbour.” 

After word got out that the offer had been made, organizers began planning a protest against resettling asylum seekers in Markham. Among those who attended or have since publicly supported this protest were Markham mayoral candidate Shan Hua Lu, Markham Ward 2 candidate Charles Jiang, Toronto District School Board Willowdale trustee candidate Min Xie and Stephen Chen, a Toronto City Council candidate in Don Valley North.

“This has been an orchestrated process by people who are running for municipal council,” said  Scarpitti. “Unfortunately, they’ve used this issue to further their political advancement, and it’s rather unfortunate that they have gone out and spread a whole bunch of misinformation to the community and tried to create fear and anger that thousands of asylum seekers were coming to the city of Markham.” 

A notice was circulated via Chinese social media, claiming that Markham was under threat of becoming a “refugee camp” for asylum seekers.

“We felt that this was an attack on our own community, in addition to other communities.”

A counter-protest was also staged by individuals who caught wind of what was happening.

“We thought, ‘We can’t keep allowing this type of thing to keep happening in the Chinese community and just to cede to this group of people,” said Edward Wong, one of the counter-protestors. “We felt that this was an attack on our own community, in addition to other communities.”

Wong and his group comprised 15 to 20 people. According to him, when they arrived, they were met by upwards of a hundred people, holding signs that read, “Not in My Backyard” and “Markham, Say No to Illegal Border Crossers.”

As they approached the crowd, protesters began to swarm them.

“It was very sudden,” said Wong. “That’s what really shocked us. Some of us have experience confronting other kinds of racist rallies, and we’ve never seen this type of escalation so quick.”
The altercation grew violent and was eventually broken up by police.

A few days after the protest, Jiang and Lu entered Markham city hall with a petition signed by over 1,000 people. The petition reads, “Say ‘NO’ to the irregular Asylum Seeker in Markham.” 
It’s not the first time Scarpitti has seen the Chinese community targeted for political gain.

“I think it’s quite disgusting, to be honest with you,” he said, “where people target a particular cultural group thinking that somehow they can get away with spreading rumours and lies within that cultural group because of their linguistic barriers.”

In a joint statement, the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic and the Centre for Immigrants and Community Services condemned the protest.

“For decades, Chinese-Canadians were subject to racist immigration policies including the Chinese Head Tax and the Exclusion Act that were designed specifically to restrict and/or exclude Chinese from coming to Canada,” it reads. “As Canadians, we want our political leaders to show courage and compassion by opening our doors to refugees.”

 The federal government has pledged $200,000 to help resettle  asylum seekers across Ontario, of whom about 150 to 200 will be accommodated in York Region. 

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Jessica Wei is an associate editor for Post City. She has lived and worked as a journalist in Montreal, Hong Kong and, now, Toronto. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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