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There's no place for racism in the Toronto mayoral election

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"I am a proud Torontonian … a proud Canadian." This wasn't so much a statement as a stand Olivia Chow took once again at a mayoral debate when facing down yet another comment about her "immigrant status."

Yet, with the exception of Indigenous peoples, each one of us is an immigrant.

It is disheartening that in all my years in Toronto this is the first time I've witnessed such virulent personal attacks against a mayoral candidate.

How did race enter the mayoral race? It seems to me that the world's most diverse city, a cosmopolitan centre, includes those who are bent on rocking mayoral debates and filling blogs with racist rants and taunts. Like the Tea Party who hounded American President Obama about whether he was born in the United States, they jockey, push and shove to reshape Olivia Chow as a "foreigner."

It's not the Ford brothers, or John Tory's meteoric rise in the polls, that surprise me. What I find shocking is the depths to which some Torontonians are prepared to sink, while hiding behind the guise of open, political debate and free speech.

"Go home … back to China" … "She's Chinese! She's not Canadian!"

That's the same anti-Asian rhetoric that stripped pioneer Chinese Canadians of the right to vote, segregated Canadian-born children by race and tore families apart by banning Chinese immigration to Canada. That voice, with the same tenor and tone, reverberated at the September 23 mayoral debate.

The slur was followed by silence from the leading mayoral candidates. It is unconscionable that the top contenders reacted to racist jeering with the same disregard as their political forefathers. Until pressed, they said nothing.

"Your candidate should learn to speak English!"

We go door-knocking during elections. When the door opened to Olivia's campaign supporter she was met with this racial backlash. A health professional with a commendable record of community service, the volunteer was shocked.

Olivia Chow is often compared to Doug Ford and John Tory, both of whom host a radio show, as the 'least articulate.' Olivia's facial paralysis makes her 'accent' more noticeable which some say makes her sound 'foreign'. Yet, Olivia had steadfastly refused to allow anything to impede her duties as a Member of Parliament and is pursuing her mayoral candidacy with the same spirited determination.

On the array of online gender and race-based expletives and invectives, the Toronto Star's investigation found that of the three mayoral front runners, "… Olivia Chow continues to attract the most abusive comments on Facebook." One writer tipped a hat to Rob Ford's 2008 comment that "those Oriental people work like dogs" by posting an image of a skinned dog in the background.

This is how Professor Lorne Foster of York University sums up the barrage of hateful comments that are being hurled at Olivia Chow:

This society is dominated by cultural representations of Chinese people as 'perpetual foreigners' -- despite the fact that Chinese people have been in Canada as long as there has been a country. The hecklers and the online comments are 'colourisms' that are still imposed on racialized people in Canada -- these colourisms reflect the power of race and gender politics. Olivia Chow is the target of western, Eurocentric narratives on the Chinese race that go back to the pre-Confederation days of the so-called "yellow peril." She is being cast as the 'perpetual foreigner' -- here in body but inherently belonging elsewhere. This is a particularly odious form of discrimination. Because of her ethnicity and gender, she is identified as an 'exotic alien'. Olivia Chow is being framed as 'the inscrutable oriental', someone who is impossible to understand or to interpret, and therefore, at the very least, is an unsafe voting choice and perhaps even a dangerous one.

Throughout all her years of political and community leadership, Olivia Chow has shown such tenacity, grace and courage in countering the stereotype of who a 'real' Canadian should be.

In this great city with its motto, "Diversity is Our Strength", there is no place for such covert racism, or what Professor Frank Wu calls the "perpetual foreigner syndrome," which has permeated the 2014 campaign and may well be its legacy.

Torontonians need to recognize it for what it is, call it out, and reject it.

Dr. Joseph Y.K. Wong, C.M., B.Eng., M.D., D.Sc.(Hon.) is a Founder of the Chinese Canadian National Council and Yee Hong Center of Geriatric Care.

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