Dozens of protesters from Calgary’s Asian community gathered at the McDougall Centre on Saturday to demand an apology from Premier Jason Kenney.
The Premier, in a year-end interview with Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, made comments that have been widely interpreted as being racist.
Kenney was quoted by Bell as saying “who knows what the next variant that gets thrown up is? I don’t know. And what’s the next bat soup thing out of Wuhan? I don’t know.”
The protesters called the comments shameful and humiliating for Albertans.
Premier’s comments make Asian community ashamed
One speaker, Rona Kong, said that the Premier’s comments made her ashamed and embarrassed to call herself an Albertan.
“I want to be proud to come from this province, and I want to be proud to say that I’m Albertan and Canadian, but for him to say this, it almost makes me feel a little scared for the future,” she said.
Kong said it was unusual for members of Calgary’s Chinese community to speak up over comments like these, but they wanted to inform the Premier of how angry his remarks made the community.
“We were all just really angry with what Jason Kenney said—first of all the bat soup thing, it’s completely made up—and Jason Kenney, you may not know that, but we wanted to inform him of that,” she said.
Dismay given prior anti-racism statements in the legislature
Wendy Peng pointed out to the protesters how the Premier had previously made a speech to the legislature condemning racism, but quickly pointed out how the “bat soup” quote contrasted with his prior actions.
“You have made a racially targeted comment generalizing the cause of the pandemic and future ones … as our leader, your words are taken seriously,” she said.
“Your comments came across as rather unprofessional and insensitive.”
Peng asked the Premier to be a role model for Albertans and to offer an apology.
“Mr. Kenney, please lead us Albertan citizens and be the positive role model that we need in these times,” she said.
Premiers office denies statement was racist
In a statement made to CTV Calgary’s Kevin Nimmock from the Premier’s office, communications staff for Kenney dismissed criticism that his comments were racist.
“It is obviously ridiculous to suggest that these widely reported scientific theories are false,” wrote Harrison Fleming, deputy director of government communications for the Premier.
“The Premier’s comment obviously referred to the widely reported theory that the first human infection of Covid-19 resulted from transmission between an infected bat and a human in the Wuhan region of China,” he wrote.
“The Premier’s comment underscored that there is no way to predict what the catalyst of a future pandemic will be, or how future variants might evolve.”
In a Christmas Eve interview with Life Calgary, the Premier said he didn’t intend any offense. His statement was forwarded to LiveWire Calgary on Saturday.
“I do want (to) say that by the way, if anybody did take offense, that I apologize to them, if they took offense, certainly none was intended,” the Premier told Life.
“I’m sorry if people felt offended by what I said, that was not my intention. And I certainly want to thank the Chinese Canadian community in Alberta for the tremendous care that it has shown in being responsible during COVID.”
Early in 2020, prior to the Covid virus reaching Canada, a popular video purportedly from Wuhan of people eating soup using bat ingredients was cited as the source of Covid-19. The video turned viral after being promoted on U.K. tabloid news site The Daily Mail, and on Russian state-owned television network RT.
A fact check by the British Broadcasting Corporation debunked this claim in January 2020. They demonstrated that the video was in fact from 2016, and taken in the Republic of Palau, in the Western Pacific Ocean next to Micronesia.
The Wuhan bat soup origin has remained a piece of pugnacious misinformation, even going so far as to continually show up on the internet as of June of 2021, in the form of a fake tweet attributed to Anthony Bourdain.
Nimmock also quoted Fleming, stating that Kenney had hosted dinners with the Chinese communities of Edmonton and Calgary earlier in the year in order to “show solidarity with the Chinese community,” and to “condemn racist sentiments directed at the Chinese community with respect to Covid-19.”
CTV reported on Saturday, that government officials said the Premier had already apologized last week for his comments. No mention of this apology was made on the Premier’s social media accounts, or in the Premier’s statements to the public through the province’s news service.
Opposition continues call for apology
Alberta’s NDP leader Rachel Notley was swift to call for an apology from the Premier on December 22, after the article written by Bell was published.
“The bigotry experienced by Asian-Canadians throughout this pandemic is horrible. Offensive phrases like this only contribute to that. The Premier should apologize,” she wrote on social media.
Justice Critic and NDP MLA for Calgary-McCall Ifran Sabir continued the former Premier’s call for an apology from Kenney at Saturday’s protest rally.
“Premier is using dog whistle, and Premier is using this racist kind of jargon to divide people, to create fear and hatred among our communities—so that’s unacceptable, that’s irresponsible for to premier to do so—and Premier must apologize,” he said.
Several protestors held signs with the words “a Premier’s job is to unite, not to divide,” echoing Sabir’s comments about feelings of having the Asian community divided.
He said that the statement from Fleming, saying that the Premier’s comments were based on science was shameful.
“That’s ridiculous—the right thing for you to do is to take responsibility that these comments were racist,” he said.
“It could create harm for the people of Asian origin, for Chinese people here in Alberta, and Premier should apologize and make amends going forward.”
Anti-Asian racism on the rise
According to Statistics Canada, police-reported hate crimes have been on the rise in Canada since at least 2014. In that year, there were 611 reported hate crimes, and by 2019 this would rise to 884. In 2020 this would sharply spike to 1,594.
In May of 2020, Statistics Canada performed a survey on the perceived increase in racially targeted harassment or attacks. From that survey, the top six visible minority groups with perceived increases were from Asia.
In Calgary, after a decrease to 80 police-reported hate crimes in 2019, from 117 in 2018, the number reported rose to 141 in 2020. Calgary, according to Statistics Canada data, has generally had higher rates of police-reported hate crimes than Edmonton.
Jian Nong Wu, one of the protesters who attended Saturday's rally, has faced that anti-Asian racism firsthand.
Wu, who works as a medical technologist at the Foothills Hospital and who has been on the front lines of treating patients during the pandemic, said that patients have rejected him for being Asian.
"My professional medical service was turned down by a patient simply because I'm ethnic Chinese," he said.
"On another occasion, a patient demand that I speak English, and he refused to acknowledge that what I'm talking to in is English."
Wu said that this racism has made it hard to do his job as a front-line healthcare worker.
"The pandemic has tremendously increased our workload, we are stressed enough in performing day to day work, the last thing I want to deal with is racial comments and the discrimination," he said.
Fears that Premier's comments will stoke racism
Wu said that he feared Kenney's comments would stoke the fire of racial hatred, going so far in his speech to fellow protestors to liken the comments to those made by former President Donald Trump.
"Similar language used before like Donald Trump has developed a significant increase in hate crimes against Asian people in general, and the Chinese in particular," he said.
President Trump repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as the so-called "Chinese virus." The former President denied that was racist, saying to the press in March of 2020 that "it comes from China, it's not racist at all."
MLA Sabir said that the Asian community's frustration with the Premier was not new, pointing to comments made by the Premier during the second wave.
"At that time premier blamed those communities for their living style and culture as contributing to the rising case numbers," he said.
The Premier was interviewed on RED FM in November of 2020. At that time, Kenney told host Rishi Nagar that northeast Calgary needed a "wake-up call," for vaccination rates.
"The largest spread in the province is in northeast Calgary and we see a very high level of spread of COVID-19 in the South Asian community. I don’t say that to blame or target anyone," he said.
Premier Kenney was widely condemned by the Asian community for those comments. After a series of AHS clinics, drive-through clinics, and other outreach efforts increased access for vaccines, northeast Calgary became the few areas of the province with near-universal full vaccination for adults, at 99.3 per cent.
MLA Sabir said that it was important for the provincial government to move ahead with the 48 recommendations from the Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council.
"I think it's critically important for the government to make that statement and make it clear that people in Alberta come from many different cultural backgrounds and talents—they all belong here, and there's no room for racism, discrimination, and hate against any Albertan," he said.