Toronto police are now investigating after reports of a person holding what looked like a gun interrupted a Zoom meeting held for students impacted by a Lunar New Year incident at the University of Toronto
On Feb. 7, the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Asian Student Alliance (ASA) was hosting a virtual meeting when participants say they were interrupted by racist messages and a shocking video of person appearing briefly on camera, brandishing what appeared to be a weapon pointed in the direction of the camera.
Toronto police have confirmed that the incident is now under investigation after it was originally being handled by the university. “At this time I don’t have any further information,” said Const. Caroline de Kloet, adding that police are in the proccess of contacting people who were involved.
Mary Reid, ASA founder and an assistant professor and academic co-ordinator at the U of T, said the meeting had more than 90 people in attendance and was intended to provide a space of healing and support following the “hell money” incident.
The meeting started off great, according to Reid, and participants were deep in conversation about anti-Asian hate, cross-racial solidarity and systemic oppression and violence toward people of colour.
But during the last 10 minutes of the chat, things quickly took a turn.
Someone with the user name “kelli” proceeded to fill the chat portion of the Zoom meeting with racist comments. The organizers blocked the person. Another user with a different name proceeded to do the same. It’s unclear if it was a single person who changed their user name in order to remain in the meeting or if it was a number of people. Either way, participants were rightfully shaken up.
“There were a couple users who started to comment (vocally)…One yelled out the N-word. Another person yelled out ‘terrorist.’ Another yelled out ‘yellow people,’” said Reid.
Shortly after, meeting participants say a male who appeared to be in his late teens to early 30s, entered the chat and briefly appeared on camera. Reid says the person turned on his video for a “split second” and pointed what she thinks looked like a machine gun into the camera.
“That’s when people went into absolute shock,” recalls Reid.
“The University of Toronto is deeply concerned about this violent and racist act,” said a spokesperson for the university in an email to the Star, adding the school is providing support for this student group and have notified campus security officials as well as Toronto police.
Students have expressed that they are fearful for their safety, Reid adds, especially the ones living at the Graduate House. Organizers have also been working with campus officials to increase security measures.
Jasmine Pham, a U of T PhD student, said it’s alarming that someone decided to use the virtual space as an opportunity to spread hate.
“Other students and faculty members of colour showed up in solidarity, to support the Asian community and the Chinese community for what happened … And the fact that the first word spoken after a Jamaican professor was speaking in support of us was the N-word, was especially shocking,” said Pham.
Reid and two other co-hosts kicked the offending users out and reported them to Zoom. The group had initially enabled a waiting room once it appeared a large number of people were interested in attending. They thought it would have been enough to secure the meeting.
“This just proves we have a bigger fight ahead of us. We went from the most empowering meeting of cross-racial solidarity, so much ally-ship, understanding how systemic oppression impacts Asian populations, and then we did a 180 and we were re-traumatized again,” said Reid.
Last week, students at the University of Toronto penned an open letter demanding action from the university after joss paper or “hell money” was distributed inside red envelopes on campus during Lunar New Year celebrations. The university apologized for the incident, saying it was “not intentional or malicious.”
“This Lunar New Year is supposed to be the most celebratory year of hope and prosperity and happiness and then that death wish and having this happen a week later, some people are thinking, ‘Maybe it’s coming true,’” said Reid.
There has been a significant increase of anti-Asian rhetoric during the COVID-19 pandemic, with attacks on Asian-Canadian seniors, violence against Asians, and vandalism of Asian-Canadian businesses.
A 2021 Statistics Canada report said police-reported hate crimes jumped sharply during the pandemic from 1,951 in 2019 to 2,669 in 2020. The same report found hate crimes targeting east or Southeast Asian people rose 301 per cent.
For Pham, although the university issued a statement on the Zoom incident and apologized for the Lunar New Year situation, there has been a lack of accountability from the school.
“If there’s no consequences and people aren’t held responsible, and there’s no accountability, what’s stopping people from doing this again and again?” she said.
Reid advocates for increased funding and more resources devoted to education on discrimination, oppression and the impact on Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities. She is also working with OISE’s counselling department to offer culturally responsive counselling in an effort to help community members heal.
“Although these racist attacks disrupted our conversation briefly, we resumed the meeting because these malicious acts will NOT stop the critical work of dismantling anti-Asian hate, anti-Blackness, and anti-Indigeneity,” said Reid.
“We stand in solidarity with our Asian community, and all who were impacted by this hateful attack,” said the U of T, adding that the school was “appalled” that the incident had taken place in the university’s community space.
“We condemn anti-Asian discrimination and racism, and all forms of hate and racial violence.”
For those experiencing anxiety, fear and trauma:
Hong Fook Mental Health Association provides clinical services, family support programs, youth support at 416-493-4242
Asian Mental Health Collective provides mental health support for Asian communities through various projects and have a list for therapists in the United States and Canada
SUCCESS Chinese Helpline offers culturally-appropriate counselling and crisis support services
The Colour Project provides peer-support volunteers for day to day connection
With files from Ivy Mak