Asian anglers caught up in racism row

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 January, 2008, 12:00am

The tiny Canadian village of Westport, Ontario, is known for its idyllic scenery, surrounded by serene ponds and lakes. But in recent months, the village's tranquil image has been tarnished by reports of a string of attacks on Asian anglers, mostly of Chinese, Vietnamese or Korean descent.

According to anglers' stories, they have been threatened, pelted with stones and targeted in 'nipper-tipping' - a practice of pushing unsuspecting fishermen off docks and bridges into the water and so-named after the disparaging term for Japanese, 'nip'.

But while some blame racial discrimination, others claim the incidents have arisen from community frustration over poaching and other illegal fishing practices.

In a recent report, the province's Ontario Human Rights Commission recorded at least 11 'serious incidents' in which Asian-Canadian anglers were targeted in Westport and other rural communities in the province, between April and October of last year. The commission, which operates at an arm's length from the government, is now grappling with ways to deter the assaults.

In one incident, a 13-year-old boy was pushed into the water as he was fishing with his father, while a 72-year-old man was also pushed and his fishing gear damaged.

In another case, the commission noted that a group of men pushed two anglers off a bridge, injuring one of them 'very seriously'. The commission did not give details, nor did it mention the ethnicity of the victims, stating only that they were Asian-Canadian.

'These incidents remind us that racism and racial discrimination exist in Ontario and show how harmful such events can be for all of us,' said chief commissioner Barbara Hall. 'What is clear is that the simple activity of going fishing for some Asian-Canadian anglers has taken on very disturbing racial overtones.'

Prompted by public concern about the assaults, the commission launched an inquiry in November to determine and address the root causes of the tension. It set up a telephone hotline and an online survey to receive information from people who had either experienced or witnessed physical or verbal assaults.

The final report from the inquiry is expected this spring. However, its preliminary results, released last month, clearly point to racism as the underlying motive.

The commission said it had heard more than 30 accounts from across the province, especially in small communities where sport fishing is popular amongst locals and tourists. The attacks and racial slurs have created an atmosphere of fear amongst Asian-Canadians in general, it said, adding that their faith in Canada's reputation for racial tolerance has been undermined.

'No Asians feel safe to do any sport fishing,' the report quoted one individual as saying.

In another submission, one man noted that his son's friend was admitted to hospital after an attack.

'Because this incident traumatised my son immensely, he still cannot sleep at night,' he said. 'My wife is also having nightmares from this. She often wakes up at night calling my son's name.'

Yet another person reported seeing an elderly Chinese man weeping at a park near a public dock. 'I went over to ask him what had happened. The elderly man said two teenaged white kids came by and kicked his lure box into the lake, and now he couldn't fish any more,' the submission read.

The commission also noted it received hate calls, containing death threats and racist abuse from non-Asian individuals during its inquiry. But some believe the commission has been too quick to identify racism as the problem.

Raymond Zee, president of the Toronto-based Ontario Chinese Anglers Association, said none of his association's members had encountered physical or verbal abuse while fishing.

His association has more than 300 members in various parts of the province, some based in communities where the commission reported accounts of racial harassment.

Mr Zee, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong nearly 35 years ago, said his members are careful to respect fishing regulations. He suggested victims of the attacks may have attracted negative attention by breaking local laws.

Anglers are required to obtain valid fishing licences and some townships ban late night fishing. Nonetheless, Mr Zee said, some people continue to fish at night for bass.

'A lot of new immigrants, some of them don't really understand there are regulations here ... Like in Hong Kong in the old days, you could fish any time,' Mr Zee said. 'The new immigrants keep coming in and a lot of them are really good, [but] a small portion of them end up upsetting local people.'

The commission's preliminary findings do not focus on the real problem, he said, which is that new immigrants often lack education about angling rules.

Although he has escaped racial harassment, Mr Zee said he is subject to harassment of another sort; his views have landed him in hot water with the Asian-Canadian community. Other Asian-Canadians have made angry phone calls to him, he said, blasting him for publicly suggesting the anglers may be partly at fault.

The mayor of Westport, Bill Thake, defended his village of about 700 people, and argued that the commission had painted an unfair picture of his townsfolk.

'We're a tourist town and we definitely are not racist,' Mr Thake said.

Villagers are indeed angry, he said, but race has nothing to do with their frustration. 'It wouldn't matter if they were Asians or who they were, but these fishermen were poachers. They were fishing in our fish sanctuaries,' he said.

Mr Thake said villagers have reported seeing refrigerated trucks with aerated tanks make surreptitious trips to the local ponds, indicating some poachers may be carrying out commercial fishing to supply businesses in Toronto, about 300km away.

Years ago, the bass in Westport's surrounding waters used to be large and plentiful. Now, he said, the fish sanctuaries had been 'cleaned right out'.

'These oriental people that come - I don't know whether they're Chinese or Korean or what they are - they've been warned on several occasions by residents and they've been shown the signs that it's a non-fishing spot ... but they're right back the next night. It doesn't make any difference to them,' Mr Thake said.

He said villagers were also frustrated that provincial officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources lack the manpower to patrol the waters and enforce fishing regulations.

He said he did not know whether the perpetrators of the attacks at his village were villagers themselves or from surrounding areas.

Steve Aubry, district enforcement supervisor for the ministry, acknowledged that he had a limited number of field officers at his disposal. He said that, while he could not rule out any incidents of poaching, his officers had not seen any evidence of it happening.

He said there was also no evidence that fish stocks in local sanctuaries are dwindling.

Susan Eng, spokeswoman for The Reference Group, an anti-racist group in Toronto that pressured the commission to launch its inquiry, said arguments regarding fish conservation detract from a serious problem of discrimination.

'The bottom line [is]... these attacks are happening and they're racist,' she said. Ms Eng said those who disagree with the commission's conclusions are 'in denial' and are 'scrambling for ludicrous explanations' to justify the assaults.

Ms Eng applauded the commission for its rapid response, and said the inquiry would give comfort to Asian-Canadians who feel helpless or who have avoided reporting incidents to authorities for fear of reprisals.

The commission is not responsible for conducting criminal investigations; however, police have laid charges in several cases.

Ms Eng said that even the scuffles of small fishing towns have grave implications for all Canadians of Asian heritage. Any intolerance must be dealt with quickly.

'If you're Chinese, it doesn't wash off. So all of us, including me and my nieces who are Canadian born, we still have to care, because next time [the victims] will be us,' she said.