2020 was not the year anyone hoped it would be.
Lockdowns, job loss, and isolation from friends, family and community has taken a toll on so many people’s mental well-being. But, the pandemic has not affected everyone equally.
In Ottawa, reported hate incidents against Asian people jumped from two cases in 2019, to 15 cases in 2020. In Pembroke, an elderly woman was assaulted and was subject to racial slurs in her own home.
For Asian residents in our communities, the past year has also meant an increase in hate, violence and racism—often due to misinformation surrounding COVID-19.
This is unacceptable.
Diversity is our greatest strength, and during this difficult time we must bond together—to ultimately build the community that we want, for everyone.
By: Abid Jan
Director, Capacity Building
United Way East Ontario
Celebrating resilience as a response to hate
Every year, United Way East Ontario’s staff celebrate Lunar New Year by sharing a meal together, and learning about the traditional customs associated with the holiday. As someone who has dedicated so much of my life to building strong, inclusive communities, I’ve always loved this team tradition.
So, as we move into the year of the Ox, it feels especially important to acknowledge the unique challenges the Asian community has faced over the past year.
Xiaobei Chen is a professor at Carleton University whose work focuses on Chinese-Canadian identity and cultural politics. She is also a representative of the Ottawa Chinese Canadian Community Services Centre on the United for All coalition. Xiaobei spoke to United Way’s staff about the resilience of the local Chinese community and the significance of the Lunar New Year celebration.
She shared sentiments about the feeling of home, acceptance, coming together, identity, and solidarity.
Tackling social and linguistic isolation
There are so many people facing such a diverse range of challenges right now, as we grapple with COVID-19.
The Yet Keen Seniors’ Day Centre for Chinese seniors at the Somerset West Community Health Centre has been a United Way partner for many years. With United Way’s support in recent months, the Centre moved exercise classes, mental health groups, learning opportunities and more onto virtual platforms so their clients could stay connected while physically apart during the pandemic.
As program coordinator Alvis Choi noted, “when COVID hit, a lot of our seniors became isolated. As you can imagine, the daily routine of spending time with friends, taking exercise classes, playing games and eating together has turned into time spent alone, or only with family who might be busy working from home.”
With United Way’s support, Yet Keen developed the “Yet Keen Members Network” in response to the pandemic. “143 seniors have been matched with younger members and volunteers who conduct regular care calls to provide check-ins, and emotional support as peers,” Alvis said. “So far, close to 3000 calls have been made through this initiative.”
In a normal year, Yet Keen’s program participants would usually gather at a local Chinese restaurant to mark Lunar New Year, to stay connected to their heritage and remember ancestry and rituals. This year, we worked with Yet Keen to make sure their senior clients could enjoy a culturally appropriate meal with their families.
Despite the significant challenges for Chinese seniors over the past year, Alvis notes “we still see so much resilience, strength and care in our elders.”
Supporting local businesses
One of the things I truly love about our region are the dynamic local businesses and the many entrepreneurs who become pillars of their neighbourhoods by using their business to do good.
Bill Kwong, the owner of Golden Palace Restaurant (of famous egg roll esteem) has long been a supporter of United Way and other local charities through the #ThisTableCares campaign and at many events.
This year, with our team working so hard every day to make a difference for those in need, we didn’t want our colleagues to miss what is normally a wonderful time for us to be together and take pause to reflect on our community’s needs, and the impact we are having. So this year, Bill made sure United Way staff could enjoy their Lunar New Year Golden Palace meal from home—and we were so grateful.
Responding to cultural needs
Since last March, United Way has been approaching the pandemic with a lens to equity. This means we understand that factors like race, gender, income all intersect, and may put certain people and groups at a disadvantage due to systems that haven’t been built to appropriately serve them.
Our first COVID-19 related response back in February 2020 involved getting masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to local volunteers in the Chinese community who were delivering food and necessities to self-isolating travelers—before anyone instructed them to—upon returning from China.
During the pandemic and long before, our local work has recognized that racialized and newcomer communities require culturally and linguistically-appropriate programs in order to thrive.
By ensuring telephone programs for seniors are offered in multiple languages, by supporting our partners to bring ethno-cultural social and mental health programming online, and by providing culturally-appropriate food and basic needs, we can set a course for an equitable recovery to the pandemic.