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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Asian-Canadians report being shoved into water while fishing

Asian-Canadians report being shoved into water while fishing near Sutton; police deny racial link

With a bucket of minnows, a few flashlights and fishing poles in tow, Ray Lam and his friends make the hour-and-a-bit drive from Thornhill to Lake Simcoe once or twice a week. They arrive just before midnight and stay for a few hours, casting lines in darkness along one of the docks outside the town of Sutton.

But at all times they keep a careful eye on the long weeds behind them.

Since April there have been three cases of assault, mischief and theft against the mostly Asian-Canadian fishermen in the area.

Another incident, the most recent, has left a 23-year-old fisherman in a coma, with damage to his ribs, lungs, limbs and brain. Shayne Berwick, of Toronto, who was thrown from a car during a pursuit, was initially given a 10 per cent chance of survival, say his parents Colin and Terry Berwick.

"You can't imagine, you never think you'll be burying a child," Terry wept at her east-end Toronto home. "And over what?"

Local youth call it "nippertipping."

It consists of locals driving around in the middle of the night, looking for cars parked near piers, docks and bridges. They then creep up behind fishermen and shove them into the lake. Sometimes the fishermen's gear is tossed in or damaged.

"Nip" is a derogatory word for Japanese, apparently used in this context for anyone of Asian descent. "Tipping" refers to a rural prank known as cow tipping. Some townspeople say it's been happening for decades, occasionally triggering gossip but nothing more.

That was until two Sundays ago. Late that night, a few local 20-somethings approached a group of Toronto friends fishing near Mossington Bridge.

There are two versions of what happened next. One is that the 20-somethings pushed one of the fishermen – of Asian descent – into the water. A white fisherman was shoved in as well.

The other is that the fishermen started the fight, leaving one of the town kids bloodied and bruised.

Whichever happened, police say a bigger confrontation then broke out between the two groups.

Four of the fishermen sped from the scene in their Honda Civic. One of the town kids got in his truck and pursued the Civic, police say. The pursuit continued for two kilometres along narrow, winding lakefront roads, until the truck driver drove the car off the road, according to police. Two of the fishermen, including Berwick, were thrown from the car and taken to hospital.

The truck driver was jailed. Trevor Middleton of Sutton was released on $20,000 bail last Thursday, charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

Since then, talk of the assaults is running through the town of 5,000. Three incidents reported this year involved people of Asian descent:

On April 27, a 13-year-old white boy was thrown in the lake late at night. He had been near a 72-year-old Asian-Canadian, whose fishing gear was damaged. It's not known whether they knew each other.

On July 22, a middle-aged couple of Asian descent suffered a minor assault; their car windshield was smashed and a baseball cap stolen.

On Aug. 6, an adult male was pushed in the water. No one was hurt. Scott MacEachern, 19, of Sutton, was charged after the Asian-Canadian held him at the scene.

Police say the assaults aren't racially motivated. "There's been three occurrences in 2007 where fishermen, both male and female of many ethnic backgrounds, have been assaulted by persons while they're fishing here," said Det. Sgt. Bill Sadler of York police. "In some cases (they've been) pushed in the water. But they're not specifically directed at Asians."

Some locals "don't like foreigners" said one man, who did not want his name used. "It's been happening since I was young – nippertipping," said the 20-year-old. "Everybody talks about doing it – `Oh, I went down to the docks the other night and roughed up some Asians.' I guess they think it sounds cool. But it doesn't happen often at all."

Under the heading "Warning: Be careful if you fish at Lake Simcoe" written in Chinese characters at yorkbbs.ca, fishermen have posted warnings. "On Aug. 18, I was fishing by myself and I got dumped into the water. I lost my cellphone and other belongings ... I reported to the police and a Chinese officer told me that it wasn't really criminal."

Last Friday, Lam and three friends decided to set up at the pier beneath Mossington Bridge.

"I've never had problems myself, but my friend Jack did," said Lam, a student at Centennial College. "One time, maybe they were drunk, they came up and threw out all my friend's stuff," he said.

Many of the individuals fishing nearby had similar stories – bottles being thrown, verbal taunting, gear damaged. "We just want to fish," said one Scarborough resident.

Shayne Berwick remains in hospital. It's unknown how long his brain was without oxygen, so even if he does open his eyes again, no one knows if he'll wake up the same funny but shy young man.

Colin Berwick can't believe what happened. "That's the '60s redneck mentality from the Deep South. This is Canada in 2007. Jesus," said the father of three.

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