Every year in May we celebrate Asian Heritage Month. It started in the United States in the 1990s but eventually, it made its way to Canada. We recognize the history and value of Asian Canadians across the country. Asian Canadians strengthen Canadian society, whether they have been here for years or have newly arrived.
Come explore Asian Heritage Month in Canada with us.
Why celebrate Asian Heritage Month?
It is a perfect chance to celebrate the cultural richness of Asian Canadians and how their history weaves through our lives.
The Asian Canadian community has grown in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, between 2006 and 2011, almost 57% of immigrants to Canada came from Asia. The top three countries were the Philippines, China and India. People from Pakistan and South Korea made it on the top 10 list.
Most live in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. Nine out of ten people settled in one of these areas. They often choose one of the big cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal or Calgary.
This means more people speak languages other than French or English. Most are languages from China. Tagalog, spoken in the Philippines, is the next most common. Punjabi makes the top 10 list.
Whose idea was this anyways?
In 2001, Senator Vivienne Poy’s proposal to make May Asian Heritage Month was adopted by the Senate of Canada. In 2002, the Government of Canada made it official. Since then, Asian Heritage Month has been adopted across the country.
Where are Asian Canadians from?
Asian countries include 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 or Vietnam.
What is the story of Asian Canadian Immigration?
In the late 1700s, Captain John Meares, a British fur trader, arrived on Vancouver Island with about a hundred Chinese craftsmen. They built a trading post, dockyard and sailing ship.
Later, in the mid-1850s more Chinese people came from the United States. They came to join the gold rush in BC. Barkerville, BC was the first Chinese village in Canada.
British Columbia agreed to join Confederation in 1871. A promised railroad connected the country.
The hard labour of Chinese people built the railroad. Working and living conditions were brutal. Chinese workers had the hardest and most dangerous jobs. They received a fraction of the pay that other workers received. Many left to join the gold rush. Others died in accidents, from disease or due to poor living conditions.
The history of Asian Canadians is long and filled with hardship. It includes some of Canada’s darkest moments. Laws, rules and society oppressed Asian people.
Some of these rules/laws included:
- Chinese Immigration Act of 1885: A $50 head tax was put on every Chinese immigrant. This made it difficult to move from China. In 1900 it raised to $100 and in 1903 to $500. We have a weekly reading set that features the Chinese Head Tax.
- Electoral Franchise Act of 1885: All Chinese immigrants could not vote.
- Continuous journey regulation of 1908: immigrants were not allowed to land in Canada if they did not come to Canada in one complete journey from their first country (no stopping in other countries first).
- Komagata Maru in 1918: A ship carrying mostly Sikhs from Punjab, India was prevented from docking in Vancouver. It spent two months off the coast of BC. It returned to India with its passengers. We have a weekly reading set that features the Komagata Maru.
- Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 (Chinese Exclusion Act): laws for Chinese immigration meant that fewer than 50 Chinese people were allowed to come to Canada between 1923-1947.
- Japanese immigration and internment: the first wave of Japanese people came between 1877 and 1928. The second wave came after 1967. They settled mostly in BC and Alberta. During the Second World War, Canadians of Japanese origin were forced out of their homes and businesses. They were sent to internment camps or to work on farms. Some returned to Japan.
- Dominion Elections Act repeal in 1948: Asians people that had been denied the right to vote were given the right to vote again.
- Korean Canadians: large numbers of Koreans arrived in the 1940s.
- Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos: in the late 1970s and 1980s, many people were resettled in Canada as they fled their countries as refugees to escape civil war.
What contributions did Asian immigrants make to the creation of Canada?
Since arriving in the late 1700s, Asian immigrants have helped grow Canada. From the building of the railroad, to fisheries and farming, Asian Canadians have shaped Canada today.
People of Asian heritage have enhanced the arts, culture, politics, science, technology, medicine, sports and every other aspect of Canadian society. We are all woven together in this country.
What can you do with students to celebrate Asian Heritage month?
Highlight Asian Canadians in Canada by researching some well-known people with this activity. It can take up to a whole month to complete, or less if you wish. Students can read their research aloud each day on your school’s announcements.
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.
Recognize the role 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.
What are some books that can be read during Asian Heritage Month (and beyond)?
Share stories that have Asian Canadians as main characters. Expose students to a variety of stories and people.
Picture Books that include Asian Heritage
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Unhei, who has just come from Korea, wants to change her name to an English-sounding name. After her classmates suggest names, she 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 but her dad explains 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 stunning picture book.
Sakura’s Cherry Blossoms by Robert Paul Weston
Follow the story of a little girl’s journey moving to a new country and how she misses her grandmother who stayed back home in Japan.
Naomi’s Tree by Joy Kogawa
Newlyweds from Japan move to Canada with a cherry seed for their garden in their new home. They are sent to an internment camp during the war and 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 from Alzheimer’s disease.
Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith
This story for older readers follows the survival of nine-year-old Nat. In 1975, Khmer Rough forced him from his Cambodian home. He gets separated from his family and is forced to march to a labour camp.
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 devastated when her adoptive father leaves. Her mother and she decided 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 presenting about Korea but Jason helps her.
Running Through Sprinklers by Michelle Kim
Sara, who is Korean, and Nadine who is part Japanese, are two 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 challenging time.
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 risky work in the building of the railroad through the Rocky Mountains.
Obasan by Joy Kagawa
This moving story captures the stories of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War who were separated and banished from 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 that she was one of the many infant girls abandoned in China during the one-child policy in China.
The Boat People by Sharon Bala
This story explores the lives of people fleeing Sri Lanka’s 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 United 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 booklist is far from complete but gives you a starting point as you explore Asian Heritage Month with your students. If you need something quick and ready to go, explore this reading and writing activity.
If you are looking for some books for other holidays, you might be like in some of our other book lists.
- Orange Shirt Day (Residential Schools)
- Books for Remembrance Day
- Black History Month
- Books for Lunar New Year
- Earth Day Books
- Books About Kindness
- Christmas Books We Love
- Books for Ramadan
- Books for Holi the Festival of Colours
- Poetry Month
- Cozy Up with Winter Books
- Books With Great LGTBQ+ Characters
- Social Emotional Learning Books
- Books for and About Powerful Women
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.