Dakota Holmes says she was walking her dog, Kato, through Gray’s Park on Vancouver’s Eastside at about 8.30pm on Friday evening when she sneezed.
She said she had just passed a man, who wheeled around and began berating her about Covid-19, yelling at her to “go back to China”. As the abuse escalated – “very negative comments [about] the coronavirus … go home, you don’t belong here” – the man punched her in the head twice, knocking her to the ground.
Holmes, 27, is an indigenous Canadian.
“I’ve been in situations like this before, being indigenous,” said Holmes. “I try not to get involved. I try not to say anything back … I think the only thing I said was ‘I’m not Asian, I’m indigenous, I’m from here, I’ve been here my whole life’.”
Holmes’ experience is not unique.
This is my daughter Dakota. We are Indigenous. She was walking her dog last night in #Vancouver when a #racist guy heard her sneezing. He yelled at her, punched her and walked away. He thought she was Asian and her sneezing was #COVID19. @VPD attended. #racism #RacismIsAVirus pic.twitter.com/mBhVgdFaBk
— Don Bain (@lheidli1) May 17, 2020
In Montreal, Inuit woman Sue Simigak said she was abused on the city’s subway on April 4 by a man who similarly mistook her for being Chinese and told her to “get out of my own country”.
She posted pictures on Facebook showing a man giving her the finger from a subway platform.
Anti-racism activist Fo Niemi said indigenous people in Canada, particularly Inuit, were often mistaken for Asians “due to their physical features”.
I think the only thing I said was ‘I’m not Asian, I’m indigenous, I’m from here, I’ve been here my whole life’
The cases of Holmes and Simigak showed how racism could spread amid the pandemic, said Niemi, co-founder and executive director of the Montreal-based Centre for Research Action on Race Relations (CRARR).
“Rising incidents and reports of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia can spread to other groups in Canada who look Asian, ranging from Inuit people to Latin Americans,” said Niemi.
“Hate spreads when people look for scapegoats and believe that they can act violently and hatefully towards others with impunity.”
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, issued a statement in response to the attack on Holmes, who works at the organisation. It said the union was “disgusted” by the incident and offered “sympathy and solidarity to Asian communities who have borne the brunt of Covid-19 related racism”.
Holmes’ case is being investigated by the Vancouver Police Department’s hate crimes investigators, said spokesman Sergeant Aaron Roed.
“Our initial investigation shows that a person was assaulted and this may have been related to race … the victim did have minor physical injuries and did not need medical treatment the night of the incident,” Roed said.
It’s never a ‘mistake’ to ‘get the wrong non-white’ … as if, if the target had actually been ‘correctly’ identified as Chinese that we should be somehow less perturbed because it somehow made sense
Professor Henry Shuen Ngei Yu
No arrests have been made, and police are seeking witnesses to the incident, Roed said.
Holmes said her attacker was a Caucasian man, about 180cm (5 foot 9 inches) tall and weighing about 90kg (roughly 200 pounds), wearing a hat and a dark jumper.
She said the man had passed her from the opposite direction and was about two metres behind her when she sneezed because of her seasonal allergies. He immediately started shouting abuse.
“When I turned around to face him, he started coming at me, yelling in my face and then he punched me, in the jaw, and then above my eye, my temple area,” she said.
Holmes said she fell to the ground, but felt she was saved from worse by Kato, a 45kg Dogo Argentino that Holmes adopted three years ago. Kato started biting at the man’s ankles.
“If Kato thinks I’m in danger, he could do some damage,” Holmes said.
The man responded by threatening to have authorities confiscate Kato because the dog was “being aggressive”.
“He somehow was trying to turn the story around, to him being the victim of the situation,” even while Holmes was still sprawled on the ground, she said.
With Kato straining at the end of his two-metre leash, the man eventually ran off.
Holmes returned to her nearby home and called her father, Don Bain – a special adviser to BC Premier John Horgan – who calmed her down. An hour or so later she called police and met them back at the park, before speaking to a detective on Sunday.
Niemi said a wave of anti-Asian racism linked to the coronavirus had caught many places unprepared.
“We are dealing with a form of explicit, violent form of hate, committed often randomly by strangers – which makes it harder to identify and apprehend – towards a group, Asians, that [are] often not included or paid attention to by many anti-racism programmes, both government and private.”
Traditional responses to tackle racism “do not always work effectively with Asian communities”, said Niemi, because of cultural, social and language factors “which lead many Asians not to talk openly about racism, much less reporting racist acts”.
“This is why an effective culturally adapted institutional response is needed, and Canada is beginning to act on this,” said the veteran campaigner, who established CRARR in 1983.
In Vancouver, police have warned of a recent spike in hate crimes amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Prior to the attack on Holmes, there had been 20 anti-Asian hate crimes reported this year – 16 of them in March and April – compared with 12 in all of 2019.
Incidents in Vancouver have included a 92-year-old man surnamed Kwong who was assaulted and thrown out of a 7-Eleven store by another customer, and an Asian woman wearing a face mask who was punched in the face by another pedestrian.
Local authorities have also noted the phenomenon.
Horgan on Sunday condemned “disturbing stories of a rise in anti-Asian racist behaviour since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic”, adding that “racism is also a virus”.
Henry Shuen Ngei Yu, a history professor at the University of British Columbia, said the attack on Holmes could not properly be understood as simply about “mistaken identity”.
“Why do we think this is a case of mistaken identity?” asked Yu. “White supremacy historically has relied on defining non-white ‘races’ as abstract categories that generally are not coherent, and blaming non-whites for things that aren’t their fault. That’s what racism as a tool for white supremacy means.
“It’s never a ‘mistake’ to ‘get the wrong non-white’ and we should pause whenever we begin to think that something has gone awry situations like this, as if, if the target had actually been ‘correctly’ identified as Chinese that we should be somehow less perturbed because it somehow made sense.”
Holmes said that as traumatic as the incident had been, “I’m kind of glad it happened to me and not someone else”, because as an indigenous person she had a lifetime of experience with racism.
“I’m used to it. It’s another day in my life … even though he got the race wrong, I’m still used to it.”
Holmes said she had previously been mistaken for being Asian “but not like this”.
“The only reason I’m sharing this story is that racism is not OK. If anyone else experiences something like this they should speak out. We’re all in this together.”
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