MONTREAL -- In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in anti-Asian racism, Montreal's Chinese community is getting ready to welcome a first: a municipal election debate taking place in Chinatown this Saturday.

The debate is being organized by the Chinatown Working Group, in collaboration with the Chinese Family Services of Greater Montreal and the Progressive Chinese of Quebec.

"Anti-Asian racism during COVID-19 and the threat of the disappearance of Chinatown have mobilized the Chinese community to a level unseen since the head tax campaign," explains one of the organizers, May Chiu, referencing a time when there was a fixed fee charged to each Chinese person entering Canada to discourage immigration.

The head tax was first levied when the Canadian government passed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The tax was abolished by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which prevented all Chinese immigration except for reasons of business, clergy, education (teachers and students), as well as a few others.

"The orientation of the next municipal government is crucial in heritage protection and the implementation of the Chinatown Action Plan that was developed after nearly a year-long consultation with all sectors of the Chinese community," Chiu states.

Mouvement Montréal mayoral candidate Balarama Holness is confirmed for the debate, as well as Projet Montréal's Robert Beaudry, incumbent city councillor for the Saint-Jacques district of Ville-Marie (which includes Chinatown), Ensemble Montréal's Aref Salem, city councillor for the Norman-McLaren district of Saint-Laurent, and Action Montréal mayoral candidate Gilbert Thibodeau.

Chiu notes before sending out invitations to the parties, the group did not realize that mayoral candidates usually debate each other, while those seeking positions as councillors are expected to go head-to-head.

"We decided to let each party determine who was the best candidate suited for our debate, given our themes," she explains.

According to Chiu, topics to be discussed include:

  • Inclusion, diversity and anti-racism;
  • The preservation of Chinatown;
  • Climate change;
  • Arts and culture;
  • Social/economic rights;
  • Economic development.

She notes the latest data from Statistics Canada show that more than 100,000 residents in the City of Montreal are of Chinese origin.

"[It's] time to flex our muscles and demand that the next government meet our needs and be accountable to us," Chiu tells CTV News.

The debate is slated to take place on Saturday, Oct. 16 at 12 p.m. at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Park.

In case of rain, the debate will be relocated to the Chinese Community & Cultural Centre of Montreal (1088 Clark Street).

The organizers say they plan to livestream the debate on the Chinatown Working Group Facebook page