VANCOUVER -- A young Indigenous woman says she was punched repeatedly by a man making racist comments while she was walking in a Vancouver park Friday evening – and according to her, the alleged attack started after she sneezed.

Dakota Holmes says a man hit her multiple times in the face, hard enough to make her fall to the ground, while making racist comments about how she should go back to Asia and accusing her of bringing COVID-19 to Canada.

Holmes said the attack started after she sneezed — because she has seasonal allergies — while walking her dog in Grey's Park at Fraser St. and 33rd Ave.

"All I did was sneeze because I have allergies, and this man just lost it on me. It was incredibly racist slurs. He assumed I was Asian," Holmes told CTV News Vancouver, describing the assailant as a white man in his mid-30s.

"Then he punched me in the face and he just kept on yelling."

That's when Holmes' dog, Kato, got between her and the attacker, forcing the man to back off, Holmes said. Kato is normally not aggressive, according to Holmes, but he has stepped in to protect her before, and two have a strong bond.

"He's always got my back," Holmes said.

Kato and Dakota Holmes
Dakota Holmes said her dog, Kato, protected her during an alleged assault in a Vancouver park on Friday, May 15. (Submitted photo)

Holmes said the man who allegedly assaulted her then began threatening to have her dog taken away from her. Holmes said she found the threat ridiculous, but it made her fearful enough that she delayed calling police to report the incident once she got home.

But after her father urged her to report the assault, Holmes called the Vancouver Police Department's non-emergency line and was told it was a serious incident. The dispatcher asked if she would meet a squad car at the park to give a detailed report. Holmes agreed, and said the two officers were "supportive and reassuring."

Holmes works as an administrative coordinator at the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, which sent out a press release Sunday, condemning the incident. The VPD has reported a spike in hate crimes against Asian people this spring.

Sgt. Aaron Roed, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Police Department, said an initial investigation into Holmes' allegations "shows that a person was assaulted and this may have been related to race."

Roed said the incident has been forwarded to the VPD's diversity section and hate crimes investigators who are looking into this incident. Police continue to search for the suspect and witnesses.

He added that hate crimes and hate incidents are under-reported, and encouraged any victims to contact police to report what happened.

Holmes said that, as an Indigenous woman, she regularly experiences racist comments, both in person and online. She said it was important to speak out about this incident because "this man is still out there — it could happen any time to anyone."