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Jun Li, left and Joy Liang cast their lines into the Black River in Sutton, Ont during a brief fishing outing.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The 12-year-old boy shuffled toward the judge with the timid reluctance one would expect of a child called to answer before authority.

Barely four feet tall with a bird-like frame, his tiny stature - unusual even for a boy his age - took the Lindsay, Ont., courtroom by surprise.

The judge, peering down from the bench, explained that he had been charged with a criminal assault. "Do you understand what that means?" he asked in a tone adults reserve for small children.

"Yes," the boy replied.

The child stands accused of being the latest and youngest villain in a peculiar crime wave.

"Nipper-tipping," as it is known to its perpetrators, emerged into the public eye two years ago during a spate of attacks on Asian-Canadian fishermen. At first, the act of pushing an unsuspecting angler into the water was viewed as a sophomoric, racist prank: The name itself combines an anti-Japanese epithet with the rural hilarity of cow-tipping. After increased scrutiny and public pressure, a zero-tolerance policy seems to have emerged, culminating in the trial of a frightened, pre-adolescent boy.

His alleged involvement could be described as a copycat crime. In April, 2007, an Asian man and his 13-year-old son fishing at Jackson's Point on Lake Simcoe in Georgina, Ont., were accosted, the latter pushed in the water. That summer, four similar events took place from July to August. Each time, the victims had only their hobby and their ancestry in common.

The breaking point came on Sept. 17 of that year when a similar incident at Jackson's Point led to a car chase in which a racially mixed group was pursued by locals. Their car crashed, leaving 23-year-old Shayne Berwick with a serious brain injury.

"Nipper-tipping" became a political flashpoint.

Chinese-Canadian leaders demanded that the cases be prosecuted as hate crimes. York Regional Police responded with helicopters to patrol popular fishing holes and Asian police officers went undercover as fishermen (they weren't attacked but reported being subjected to racial slurs). The Ontario Provincial Police responded by assigning hate-crime investigators to any incident involving Asian fishermen. The Ontario Human Rights Commission weighed in with a report, Fishing Without Fear , that graded more than 20 organizations involved in the events.

Did tolerance end at the GTA border? Or were white locals applying vigilante tactics to outsiders they accuse of illegally depleting fish stocks? As the multicultural city extends further toward areas relatively untouched by immigration, these flare-ups may be a symptom of deeper unease.

Fisheries have long been a source of conflict between whites and Asians. At the turn of the century in B.C. there was a fight over Fraser River salmon that led to violence, and in 1907 there were anti-Asian riots in Vancouver. There was also an anti-Chinese riot in Lindsay, Ont., in 1919. Patricia Roy, a historian who has studied the history of the Chinese and Japanese in Canada, said these kinds of tensions are not uncommon anywhere in the world. Locals are often hostile to outsiders if they believe they're infringing on a scarce resource, and that hostility is more easily focused if the outsiders belong to an identifiable racial group.

"I wouldn't say it's what Canada is, I would say it's what people are," Prof. Roy said. "I think it's more human nature than Canadian."

In the Lindsay courtroom last week, the 12-year-old's parents stood with him in court, laying their hands on his shoulders as though trying to keep his fidgety torso pointed in the right direction. They told the judge they planned to hire a lawyer to defend their son, but declined to speak with reporters for fear of jeopardizing his case.

The decision to prosecute a child is the strongest signal yet that police and justice officials are serious about cracking down on a practice that remains an open wound for many Asian-Canadians.

The victim is a 46-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Markham who was on a day trip this August to the Kawarthas with his family. Fishing at the side of Canal Lake, he was approached by two boys. When he turned his attention to his fishing rod, one of the boys allegedly ran up and knocked him into the water, which was two metres below. The victim's wife, who along with his son and daughter watched the attack unfold, chased and caught the boy and then called the OPP.

Still, a criminal-assault charge in this case is somewhat surprising. Officers typically have a great deal of discretion to either arrest or caution young suspects. But with the scrutiny of the Toronto media and the Human Rights Commission, as well as governments pledging these attacks will be taken seriously, the police may feel they have no choice but to lay charges.

While the authorities have been cracking down, prosecutors have been criticized for easing up. Last week another high-profile assault prosecution came to a sudden and - in the eyes of the Chinese community - unsatisfactory end.

Scott MacEachern, a 21-year-old business student from Georgina, had been charged with three separate attacks on Asian fishermen in York region during the summer of 2007. In each case, he had allegedly shoved someone into the water. Mr. MacEachern pled guilty to only one of the charges, the others were dropped, and he walked free with a sentence of 12 months probation.

"I'm shocked that he was let go," said Mike Ma, co-ordinator of the Peterborough Community and Race-Relations Committee. The news of the sentence was splashed on the front pages of Chinese-Canadian newspapers, and call-in shows lit up with angry responses. York police said they did their best, but witnesses in some cases couldn't identify the accused.

Mr. Ma, who has lived in Canada nearly all his life, said he worries about his own safety now when he fishes in the area outside Peterborough.

"My sister and brother-in-law and their family came to visit me a few weeks ago and we went fishing," he said. "The whole time in the back of my mind I'm thinking, 'Am I safe?' because of the way I look."

Very few locals are willing to speak on the record for fear of being branded as racists. But they say their complaints are legitimate: Many Asian day-trippers are fishing without a licence, trespassing on private property and ignoring catch limits. Some of the fishing is happening at night, which can only mean they're up to no good and the catch is being sold in Toronto's Chinatown the following morning.

In their view, a centuries-old local fishery is being depleted by outsiders, and the Ministry of Natural Resources is doing nothing to stop it. Confronting the fishermen, pushing them in the water, spraying graffiti - such as the message on a Hastings, Ont., bridge that read "Fuck You Nips!!, fish thieves" - are all misguided but understandable attempts to redress injustice, they argue.

Mr. Ma said he's still shocked by the number of people who characterize these incidents as youthful pranks or a legitimate conflict while down-playing the racial overtones.

"Why is it that these attacks are uniformly on Asian-Canadians?" he asks. "It's been quite uniform."

The attacks have been concentrated primarily in the Township of Georgina, near Lake Simcoe, and more recently to the east in the Kawartha Lakes area. While Toronto has a visible minority population of 45 per cent, it's just 3.9 per cent in Georgina, and 1.6 per cent in Kawartha Lakes.

The number of incidents reported to police involving Asian fishermen has declined, from 10 in 2007 to five in 2009 - but the threat hasn't abated.

This week a Toronto woman born in the Philippines was fishing at a Pigeon Lake resort when she was approached by three men who demanded to know what she was catching and whether she had a licence - typical harassment many Asian fishers describe. The police said the woman fled the area and called for help. The OPP said the incident "may have involved physical contact," but they didn't have sufficient grounds to lay an assault charge.

They later issued a press release asking people who fish not to resort to vigilante enforcement. Concerns should be taken up with natural resources officers, they said.

Ontario's Natural Resources Minister Donna Cansfield said one of the most important steps taken by her ministry was to meet with the Asian anglers association and have the province's fishing regulations translated into Cantonese to prevent misunderstandings.

"Obviously there has been some level of discomfort in the communities - both communities - it's not one or the other," Ms. Cansfield said. "We live in a very cosmopolitan world, especially in Ontario, and we have to find ways and means of how we live together."

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