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Asian community unites over attacks on anglers
The trial garnered a huge amount of attention from Asians
Peter Edwards Staff Reporter - Published On Mon Dec 28 2009
It was dark on the pier at Mossington Park in Georgina Township when the drunken strangers approached.
Ruohang Liu and his friend Charles Hogan thought the men were joking when they demanded to see their fishing licences.
"He said that he's Canadian and he's doing his Canadian duty and wanted to see my fishing licence," says Liu, 24, now a senior analyst for a GTA investment firm.
Seconds later, before they had a chance to show the strangers their fishing permits, the two longtime friends were pushed into the water.
For Liu, who cannot swim, being shoved into the dark waters of Lake Simcoe shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2007, was a terrifying experience.
But the night would get far worse.
Moments after he was pulled from the lake by his friends, Liu's friend Shayne Berwick, 26, lay near death in a coma with brain damage after the Honda Civic Liu had been driving away from Mossington Park hit a tree while being pursued by locals in pickup trucks.
Trevor Middleton, 23, of Sutton, was convicted Dec. 15 in a Newmarket court of four counts of aggravated assault and two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.
Middleton had been charged with trying to run Liu's Honda off the road, not for the dunking of Liu and Hogan.
The incident on the Mossington Park Bridge is an extreme example of attacks and harassment that have been inflicted scores of times in the past few years on Asian fishermen in the Greater Toronto Area. It has become so common that the attacks have nicknames by some Georgina Township locals: "nip-tipping" and "nipper-tipping."
What's unique about the attack on Liu and Hogan – apart from the near-fatal and crippling injury to Berwick – is the huge attention it has garnered from Asian community leaders, activists and media members.
"It's totally a turning point," Susan Eng, vice-president, advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired Persons and former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. "Even the existence of this trial is a major step forward."
For many of Asian background in the GTA, the night is a reminder of generations of similar abuse.
"It has been going on for some time," Eng says. "It's not like it's a recent phenomenon ... Our parents just said that was the price that you had to pay."
At key points during Middleton's trial, there were nine Asian journalists and a few more community activists attending.
Eng says many Asian fishermen drive to Lake Simcoe at night because they have day jobs. They're often professional community members, who are used to being treated with respect, not derision. The consequences of being shoved into the water, even if there aren't serious physical injuries, can't be minimized, she says.
"Being pushed in the water and being soaking wet and having to tell your kids why your cellphone doesn't work any more is a huge humiliation," Eng says. "It's something that reverberates for generations."
The community has been able to focus on the fishermen attacks because it now has well-informed Chinese language media, activists and lawyers, who developed some cohesion through the battle for Chinese head tax redress, Eng says.
That fight brought an apology in 2006 from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and financial redress for the punitive head tax imposed on Chinese-Canadian immigrants between 1885 and 1923.
"For those of us early Canadians born in the community who watched our parents be treated with barely disguised hostility ... this is not a shock so much as it is a bad nightmare that has just come to life," Eng says of the attacks on fishermen.
Increased community reporting has led to investigations on some 30 attacks on Asian fishermen and harassment of fishermen throughout the province between late 2007 and January 2009, when a fisherman was confronted during an ice-fishing tournament.
Court heard some of the men at the Mossington Park pier drank more than two dozen bottles of beer before Liu and Hogan were attacked. Eng says the argument that locals are environmentalists protecting their fish from poaching and overfishing is laughable.
For his part, Middleton said two witnesses from his group who thought they saw him push someone into the water that night must have been lying or mistaken. He swore he was up by his mother's pickup truck, searching for a lost cellphone charger, when the attacks took place.
Middleton said he hadn't even heard the term "nip-tipping" until it was in the mainstream media two years ago.
Recreational fisherman Bradley Lee was one of the Asian community activists who attended Middleton's trial on a daily basis. Lee, a fourth-generation Canadian, said it has stung to hear Asian Canadians routinely treated by locals as outsiders who don't respect fishing regulations.
In an interview, York Regional Police Chief Armand La Barge said: "The Asian fishermen/women were being unfairly characterized by some of the local residents as not being licenced, littering, exceeding their limit or catching certain fish out of season."
La Barge says his force takes hate crimes extremely seriously, and notes it has set up a hotline for Asian fishermen wishing to report incidents, staffed by officers who can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean and Vietnamese.
La Barge said his force has also used undercover male and female Asian officers to fish alongside others in Lake Simcoe in the late evening and early morning hours, to aid victims and arrest attackers.
Eng says it's a victory that the early morning attack made it to trial, so that it could be dealt with in the light of day. "In the light of day, it looks pretty awful," Eng says.