In 2019, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg wrote a book with a memorable title. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference reflected her philosophy that anyone can have a positive impact on the planet.
The same spirit infuses Doris Wai Ki Mah, who decided to take action after hearing about a surge of hate crimes targeting people of Asian ancestry in the Lower Mainland.
In 2020, in the first year of the pandemic, Vancouver reported a spike of 717 percent in such crimes. In Burnaby, where Mah was living, the number rose by 350 percent, increasing from six such incidents in 2019 to 27 hate crimes in 2020.
“COVID revealed a lot of the anti-Asian-racism sentiment,” Mah told the Straight by phone from Ottawa, where she works for NDP MP Peter Julian. “So I decided to start Stand With Asians Coalition.”
It began modestly, at her kitchen table. After a friend of Asian ancestry was threatened at Mah’s neighbourhood Safeway in North Burnaby, Mah became even more determined.
“This is when it felt like it was really close to home,” Mah said. “I went to [Burnaby] city hall and I got a proclamation.”
It declared May 10 as a Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism. What happened next was quite astonishing.
Mah, a citizen representative for the City of Burnaby social planning committee, shared the proclamation over social media, resulting in a wave of support.
She said that she and her fellow activists were able to persuade more than 40 cities across Canada to also proclaim a Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism in 2021. Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa were among the communities that participated.
“So if we add the cities’ populations together, we had nearly nine million—8.7 million,” Mah said. “This year, we are aiming for 20 million.”
The goal is to have every province and territory represented in the 2022 campaign.
She is particularly pleased by how the Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism brought people together in solidarity against hate crimes.
“I realize that there are actually more allies out there than I thought,” Mah said. “Also, what is very satisfying is the importance of raising up grassroots activists.”
As a result of her community-improvement efforts, the mother of three won the community special contribution award from the United Global Chinese Women's Association of Canada.
Mah has been in Canada for 30 years after immigrating as a teenager from Hong Kong. During those years, she and her mother have experienced racism in many forms.
The most traumatic occurred back in the 1990s, when Mah was in her car at an intersection near the border between New Westminster and Burnaby.
An angry man emerged from his vehicle, banged on her window, and started swearing at her, telling her to go back to China. Mah said that even if she had done something wrong behind the wheel, it didn’t justify this type of harassment in the middle of the street.
“I was a newcomer and I was still learning English at the time,” she recalled.
Over the years, Mah has come to the conclusion that systemic racism exists in every facet of our society, including housing, employment, the criminal-justice system, and political representation.
As an example of the latter, she said that when she is seated in the gallery in the House of Commons and looks at the Conservative caucus, she observes a sea of white males.
"Who are the decisionmakers there? Because the decisionmakers are the ones who set the agenda—the policy agenda," she said. "So if we don’t have enough racialized folks—BIPoC folks, First Nations foks—at the decision tables, the systemic racism will always be there."
Mah stated that the NDP caucus, on the other hand, has the most racialized and female representation in Parliament.
"We’re bringing a different lens," she continued. "Sometimes it is our own lived experience."
Monday (March 21) marks the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The event commemorates the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when South African police opened fire on peaceful anti-apartheid demonstrators, killing 69 people.
This year’s theme is “voices for action against racism”, which is certainly what Mah is aiming to generate on a large scale.
“I’m only one person, and it started at my kitchen table,” Mah said, “and it kind of spilled over across the country.”