Over the last two centuries, immigrants have journeyed to Canada from many different parts of Asia, bringing with them a rich cultural heritage with many languages, ethnicities and religious traditions.
This diverse, vibrant and growing community has contributed to every aspect of life in Canada, from arts and sciences to sport, business, and government. In December 2001, the Senate passed a motion to officially designate May as Asian Heritage Month.
Since the inaugural Asian Heritage Month celebration in Toronto in 1993, cities across Canada have been holding annual festivities during this month to recognize Asian heritage. Ottawa, Toronto, Halifax, Montréal, Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver have been holding annual festivities during this commemorative month.
Canada’s cultural diversity strengthens us socially, politically and economically in many ways. Asian Heritage Month is a great time for all of us to celebrate the beauty and wisdom of diverse Asian cultures. It gives us an opportunity to learn more about the history of Asian Canadians and to celebrate their contributions to the growth and prosperity of Canada.
Unfortunately, the history of Asian Canadians has too frequently been marred by exploitation and lack of access to basic human rights, such as the exploitation of Chinese railway workers and the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Today, the Conservative government’s temporary foreign worker program plays a central role in the ongoing exploitation of Asian workers and the denial of human rights. For example, a disproportionately high number of women from the Philippines come to Canada through the live-in caregiver program. In most provinces and territories, these women can’t unionize because the domestic arena isn’t recognized as a workplace. They often lack many basic workers’ rights, earn significantly less than Canadian citizens or permanent residents, work excessively long hours, and face racism and sexism in the workplace. They’re often unable to choose where they live, or to change employers without government permission. They’re vulnerable to exploitation, and because they do not have permanent status, they cannot integrate into Canadian society and contribute to their full potential.
Last year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers that would grant basic labour rights to domestic workers, like reasonable hours of work, weekly rest of at least 24 consecutive hours, and clear information on terms and conditions of employment. It’s up to us now to ensure that governments recognize this agreement and ensure that these basic rights are protected.
We stand in solidarity with Asian workers and proudly celebrate Asian Heritage Month. Celebrating this month in your local area helps raise awareness of the exploitation of Asian workers and acknowledges the unique contributions of our Asian members. It’s a great way to build solidarity across cultural lines and strengthen our collective fight for social and economic justice.
Have a great Asian Heritage Month.
Harminder Magon the National Anti-Racism Coordinator for Canada’s largest Union CUPE – Canadian Union of Public Employees. He came to Canada in 1966 from Nairobi – Kenya, with roots in North India.