What is Asian Heritage Month?
Every year in May we celebrate Asian Heritage Month. The celebration started in the United States in the 1990s but eventually, unofficially, made its way to Canada. During the month we acknowledge the history and contributions of Asian Canadians across the country. Whether they have been here for generations or are newly arrived, Asian Canadians strengthen Canadian society.
Come explore Asian Heritage Month in Canada with us.
Why celebrate Asian Heritage Month?
It is an ideal opportunity to celebrate the diverse cultural richness of people from across the Asian Canadian diaspora and their contributions to our society in the past and present.
The Asian Canadian population has steadily been rising in Canada and provides the greatest number of newcomers in recent years. According to Statistics Canada, between 2006 and 2011, almost 57% of immigrants to Canada came from Asia. The top three countries were from the Philippines, China and India. Newcomers from Pakistan and South Korea made it on the top 10 list of countries people are coming from. This trend continues.
The majority live in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. Nine out of ten people settled in one of these four provinces, usually in one of the big cities of Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and in a lesser amount in Calgary.
Higher population means greater numbers of people speaking languages other than French or English as a mother tongue. Languages from China has the highest number followed by Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines. Punjabi also makes it on the top 10 list.
Whose idea was this anyways?
In 2001, Senator Vivienne Poy’s proposal to officially designate May as Asian Heritage Month was adopted by the Senate of Canada. In 2002, an official declaration was signed by the Government of Canada. Since then, Asian Heritage Month has been more widely celebrated across the country.
Where are Asian Canadians from?
The definition of “Asian” is used by people who come from or whose ancestors come from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and/or Vietnam.
What is the history of Asian Canadian Immigration?
In the late 1700s, Captain John Meares, a British fur trader, arrived on Vancouver Island with some 120 Chinese artisans over two years. They helped to build a trading post, dockyard and sailing ship.
It wouldn’t be until the mid-1850s that Chinese immigrants would come again, coming from the United States to British Columbia (BC). They came from California to join the gold rush in the Fraser Valley of BC. Many also came directly from China to join the gold rush. Barkerville, BC was the first Chinese community in Canada.
When British Columbia agreed to join Confederation in 1871, they were promised that a railroad would be built to connect BC to the rest of Canada. To build the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) faster and cheaper, Chinese immigrants were brought in large numbers.
The railroad could not have been built without the hard labour of Chinese immigrants. The working and living conditions were brutal and most of the hardest and most dangerous jobs were given to the Chinese workers. And they were paid a fraction of what other workers were paid. Many eventually deserted to join the gold rush and many others died from accidents, disease or the harsh living conditions.
The history of Asian Canadians is long and fraught with hardship, hiding some of Canada’s darkest moments in history. In the first half of the 20th century, Canada’s immigration policies and attitudes toward minorities was not inclusive. Laws, rules and society discriminated against Asian immigrants.
Some of these rules/laws included:
- Chinese Immigration Act of 1885: a $50 head tax was imposed on every Chinese immigrant making it very difficult for immigrants from China to come, in 1900 it was raised to $100 and in 1903 to $500
- Electoral Franchise Act of 1885: all immigrants of Chinese origin were not allowed to vote
- Continuous journey regulation of 1908: immigrants were prohibited from landing in Canada if they did not come to Canada by a continuous journey from their country of origin (no stopping in other countries first)
- Komagata Maru in 1918: ship carrying mostly Sikhs from Punjab, India was refused permission to dock in Vancouver; they spent two months off the coast of BC and the ship was eventually forced to return to India with its passengers
- Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 (Chinese Exclusion Act): restrictions on Chinese immigration meant that fewer than 50 Chinese were allowed to come to Canada between 1923-1947
- Japanese immigration and internment: the first wave of Japanese immigration was between 1877 and 1928 and the second wave came after 1967; people mostly settled in BC and Alberta; during the Second World War, Canadians of Japanese origin were forced out of their homes and businesses and sent to internment camps or to work on farms; most were born in Canada; some were even eventually sent back to Japan
- Dominion Elections Act repeal in 1948: Asians immigrant that had been denied the right to vote were given the right to vote again
- Korean Canadians: larger number of people were arriving from Korea in the 1940s
- Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: in the late 1970s and in the 1980s many people were resettled in Canada as they fled their countries as refugees, escaping civil war
These are a just a sample of historical events that shaped the way Asian immigrants were treated in Canada. Each one of these events could be explored separately with students.
What are the contributions of Asian immigrants to the development of Canada?
Since the first immigrants from China arrived in the late 1700s, Asian immigrants have contributed significantly to the growth and development of Canada. From the building of the railroad, to the development of fisheries and agriculture, Asian Canadians have shaped how Canada is today.
People have made contributions to the arts, culture, politics, science, technology, medicine, sports and every other aspect of Canadian society.
What can you do with students to celebrate Asian Heritage month?
Highlight the contributions of Asian Canadians to Canada by researching some well-known people by doing this activity which can take up to a whole month to complete.
Take a virtual tour of the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver.
Visit the Chinese Canadian Women Project online or the Ties that Bind: Building the CPR, Building a Place in Canada website.
During Remembrance Day ceremonies recognize the contributions of Chinese Canadians to the war efforts.
Explore Canada’s Virtual Museum to get information on a variety of topics related to the Asian Canadian community.
Read books with your students that highlight the experiences of Asian Canadians overseas and at home.
What are some books that can be read during Asian Heritage Month (and beyond)?
Share stories that have Asian Canadians as main characters to ensure that students are exposed to a diversity of characters. The list below will give ideas on books to read.
Have your students review some of the books and write recommendations. Use our Book Recommendation notes which are found in our Resource Library. We can send you a set directly when you sign up for our email list.
Picture Books that include Asian Heritage
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Unhei, who has just immigrated from Korean, wants to change her name to an English sounding name. After her classmates suggest names, she eventually decides to use her Korean name after all.
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki
This picture book follows the story of Hana Hashimoto who signs up to play the violin for her school’s talent show even though she is a beginner.
Maggie’s Chopsticks by Alan Woo
Maggie gets her very own pair of chopsticks but doesn’t know how to use them. Her family tries to teach her how they do it but her dad tells her that everyone uses their chopsticks in their own unique way.
Mooncakes by Loretta Seto
A young girl shares the Chinese Moon Festival with her parents in this beautiful picture book.
Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms by Robert Paul Weston
Follow the story of a little girl’s experience immigrating to a new country and how she misses her grandmother who staid back home in Japan.
Naomi’s Tree by Joy Kogawa
Newlyweds from Japan immigrate to Canada with a cherry seed for their garden in their new home. But when they are sent to an internment camp during the war they wonder if they will ever see their beloved cherry tree again.
Grandfather’s Story Cloth by Yawg Daim Paj Ntaub Neeg
Ten year old Chersheng learns about his family story through the traditional Hmong story cloth from Laos as his grandfather loses his memories because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith
This story follows the survival of nine-year-old Nat who was forced from his Cambodian home by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He is separated from his family and forced to march to a labour camp. This story is meant for older readers.
Middle Years Novels that include Asian Heritage
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Using poetry, a young girl tells the story of her family leaving Vietnam in 1975 to settle in the United States.
Wave by Eric Walters
Sam and his parents leave Ontario for Thailand for the Christmas holidays. Little did they know that they would experience the devastation of the tsunami of 2004.
The Finding Place by Julie Hartley
Kelly is adopted from China by a North American family but when her father leaves, she is devastated. Her mother and her decide to journey back to China to search for Kelly’s roots.
Heart of a Champion by Ellen Schwartz
Kenny and his family are sent to an internment camp when war is declared against Japan. His love of baseball gives him the courage to get permission to build a baseball field and gives him a sense of purpose.
Krista Kim-Bap by Angela Ahn
Best friends, Krista and Jason are preparing their Heritage Month projects and Krista is unsure about being the Korean representative but Jason encourages her.
Running Through Sprinklers by Michelle Kim
Sara, who is Korean, and Nadine who is part Japanese are best friends growing apart. Nadine skips a grade and heads to high school while Sara stays behind. Sara starts her journey of self-discovery during this upheaval in her friendship.
Blood and Iron (I am Canada) by Paul Yee
Heen ends up working on the CPR railroad in Canada and experiences harsh conditions and life-threatening dangers.
A New Life by Rukhsana Khan
Eight year old Khaddija and her family move to Canada from Pakistan. Follow the struggles of life in a new society and their triumphs as they find their way.
Teen and Young Adult Novels that include Asian Heritage
Iron Road by Anne Tait with Paulette Bourgeois
Based on the award-winning film, Iron Road, this story follows the journey of Li Jun, a girl disguised as a boy, from southern China to British Columbia in 1882. She wants to find her father and joins many others in the perilous work in the building of the railroad through the Rocky Mountains.
Obasan by Joy Kagawa
This moving story captures the experiences of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War who were separated and ostracized in Canadian society. This is a Canadian classic!
Throwaway Daughter by Ting-Xing Ye with William Bell
Grace decides to explore her Chinese ancestry after she witnesses the Tiananmen Square massacre on TV. She discovers, to her dismay, that she was one of the many infant girls that were abandoned in China during the one-child policy in China.
The Boat People by Sharon Bala
This story explores the experience of people fleeing Sri Lanka and the civil war to come to Canada in 2010 on a cargo ship. When they arrived in British Columbia, they were detained.
Non-fiction books that include Asian Heritage
Internment Camps by Natalie Hyde
This non-fiction book explores the internments camps in the Unites States and Canada during World War II.
Immigration to Canada Then and Now Series
Learn about Asian immigration to Canada in this series that includes:
Southeast Asian Immigrants in Canada by Lydia Lukidis
Chinese Immigrants in Canada by Ramona Heikel
Japanese Immigrants in Canada by Rachel Seigel
Obviously, this book list is far from complete but gives you a starting point as you explore Asian Heritage Month with your students. Or explore this activity with your students.
If you are looking for some books for other holidays and observances, you might be interested in some of our other book lists.
- Books or Orange Shirt Day
- Books for Remembrance Day
- Picture Books for Lunar New Year
- Books About Kindness
- Christmas Books We Love
- Books for Ramadan
- Books for Holi the Festival of Colours
- Books for Poetry Month
Do you know about a book we should know about? Please help us expand our library by adding a book title to the comments below.