Students at the University of Alberta are calling on the Premier to apologize for comments he made about the South Asian community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The School of Public Health Students’ Association (SPHSA) is asking Premier Jason Kenney to apologize for comments he made regarding the COVID-19 cases within Calgary’s South Asian community. A sub-committee of the SPHSA, the School of Public Health Students for Advocacy and Rights (SPHAR) recently sent out an open letter to Kenney, detailing how his comments negatively affected the South Asian community.
The comments were made on the Calgary radio show Red FM back in November 2020. In the interview, Kenney said that the province was seeing a high spread in COVID-19 in Calgary’s South Asian community and came on the show to issue a “wake up” call.
“I don’t say that to blame or target anyone,” he said. “The fact of the matter is this. One of the beautiful, wonderful things about my friends in the South Asian Community is a strong sense of family and hospitality. People very often in the community have large families — multi-generational families,” he said on the radio show.
Kenney’s next comments were directly addressed in the open letter from SPHAR.
“We know that it’s tradition to have big family gatherings at home and we think that this is one of the reasons why we have seen a much higher level spread in the community than other parts of the population.”
In the letter, SPHAR outlines this comment as harmful to the South Asian community and said it overshadows the contributions the community has made during the pandemic.
“This statement undervalues the considerable contributions made by this community in the face of the pandemic,” the letter read. “We see our South Asian family members, neighbours, community leaders working tirelessly on the frontlines, and they do not have the choice to stay home.”
The letter also outlined how this kind of rhetoric can fuel racial attacks, mentioning the increase of violent attacks against Asian communities seen in North America during COVID-19.
“Comments like these not only impact the health of minority communities in Alberta, but also lead to a rising number of hate crimes targeting these communities by validating racist rhetoric,” the letter read.
Alongside these lines, the letter also explained how the pandemic disproportionately affects racialized peoples health, such as higher mortality rates in neighbourhoods with higher proportions of visible minorities. To help remedy this, SPHAR emphasized the importance of not only collecting race-based data, but also using it to address racism rather than further it.
“Race-based data provides the information needed to understand the nature of systemic inequalities, an essential component of our healthcare system,” the letter said. “Public access to race-based data is needed to progress towards an anti-racist society, thereby advancing Alberta’s growth and prosperity.”
“It is important to note that race-based data should be used in a manner that uplifts racialized communities. This means that the data should be shared with members of the community, and we need to work with them and support their needs.”
The letter concluded with three requests: for Kenney to apologize to the South Asian community, for the release of the Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council’s report on race-based health data, and for the provincial government to consult with racialized communities to figure out ways to support them during the pandemic.
SPHAR created in response to Premier’s comments
It was actually Kenney’s comments that lead the creation of the SPHAR, according to Monica Surti, a first-year master’s degree in health promotion student, and SPHSA Communications Officer. The group formed back in December, but underwent extensive consultation and planning before releasing the open-letter.
“Although this was a lengthy process and meant several ‘back and forth’ sessions with our busy professors and other faculty members with extensive experience in advocacy, we are proud of the effort we were able to put in within a couple of months,” Surti said. “Additionally, we wanted to ensure our calls for action or tasks were feasible, evidence-based and would elicit the change we wanted to see in the way race-based data is handled in Alberta.”
Jenna Mulji, a first-year master’s degree in global health student and SPHA Social Coordinator, further explained how the comments the Premier made can be damaging.
“Through not acknowledging that these statements were harmful, it sends a message that racism in Alberta is both accepted and normalized, setting the stage for further harm towards racialized communities,” Mulji said. “Albertans need to know that racist comments are not okay, and by apologizing for the comments made our government contributes to keeping themselves and others accountable for their actions.”
Deborah Nyarko, a first-year master’s degree in health policy and management student said that the reception of the letter has been mostly positive with support garnered from various MLA’s and peers from both the U of A and other universities. However, she also said there has been some opposition to the letter.
“There have been a few people who have openly commented on our posts about their disagreement with the letter,” Nyarko said. “We recognize that with any cause, there will be individuals who disagree. We also recognize that even though this opposition exists, the positive response far outweighs their negative.”
In terms of the response from the subject of the letter, Surti said the group has only received a “generic email” from Kenney’s office and are still awaiting an official response.
The Office of the Premier did not respond to the Gateway’s request for comment.
Kaman Sandu, a first-year master’s degree in health policy and management student and president of the SPHSA remains hopeful to hear back from the Premier himself, but maintains that the experience was rewarding nonetheless.
“We hope to hear a response back from the Premier, and we are looking forward to seeing whether our conciliatory calls to action will be addressed,” Sandu said. “This was also a great learning experience for us and we look forward to continuing our advocacy efforts.”
Surti also explained that though this group was created to address the Premier’s comments, SPHAR’s purpose and mandate has grown to include advocacy for racialized communities.
“We set out with the goal of raising awareness on the importance of race-based data, and therefore we are overwhelmed with the amount of support we have received on social media,” Surti said. “Although we still have a long way to go, we are looking forward to seeing change in the way racism is handled in Alberta.”
“We know our goal of advocating and speaking up for the rights of racialized populations is an extensive one, but our goal of creating a conversation, raising awareness and sparking discussion has been accomplished.”