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The town of Westport, Ont., is known for its lovely fall colours and great fishing in the nearby Rideau Lakes. But now, Westport has another reputation. A series of ugly assaults in this and other communities has shown that racism is alive and well in small-town Canada. The targets are Chinese fishermen, and a colloquial term for these incidents is "nipper-tipping."

The phrase comes from the pejorative slang for Japanese, and describes the practice of harassing fishermen and throwing them into the lake. It's been front-page news in the Chinese-language press, and hit the mainstream media when Chinese-Canadian and anti-racism groups held a press conference to denounce police foot-dragging.

"Hate crimes," pronounced Avvy Go, a lawyer with the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic. "It seems that it's only the tip of an iceberg," said Simon Li, the host of a Chinese call-in show. The Harmony Movement, a group established to combat racial intolerance, said the attacks "point to the fact that much work remains to be done in our schools and communities." The police quickly put a task force on the case. Now Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall has weighed in. In a letter to Westport's weekly newspaper, she said: "These attacks can only be described as racist."

What no one mentioned was the problem of illegal fishing. It turns out that some of Westport's fish sanctuaries - in which the community invested a lot of money - have been nearly fished out by midnight poachers. Coincidentally, or maybe not, live crappie, walleye and smallmouth bass are popular in the markets of Toronto's Chinatown, where they fetch up to $10.99 a pound.

"Some Asian people aren't respecting the law when it comes to fishing," said Raymond Zee, head of the Toronto Chinese Anglers Association. He says the dispute is between locals and outsiders, not between races. "In my own opinion, this does not have anything to do with racism."

Neil Kudrinko, a Westport businessman active in the conservation movement, agrees. "The poaching has gone so far that the fishery has collapsed. It will have a devastating effect on tourism. That's the only industry we have left."

Local frustration is running high because, despite years of complaints, the fishing laws aren't being enforced. Short-staffing at the conservation office seems to be the problem. By the time the law shows up, the poachers are long gone.

It's unclear how frequent or serious the confrontations have been, although it's safe to say that tales of Chinese grandfathers being beaten up and thrown into the lake are wildly exaggerated. It's also possible that some innocent people have been yelled at and threatened. In any case, both Mr. Kudrinko and Mr. Zee agree that harassment and threats are always wrong.

Fishing is popular with Chinese people, and Mr. Zee's association promotes it as a family sport - a great outing with the kids. He also wants people to learn the local laws and customs, including an appreciation of conservation. "Back home, they don't need to have a fishing licence and there aren't many regulations," he says. He notes that many Chinese-Canadians have fished in the area for years, and find the locals "really nice."

Both men agree that the answer is education and enforcement, not hate-crimes prosecution. They think it's unfair to tarnish Westport as a racist town - just as unfair as it would be to label all Chinese fishermen as poachers. But the voices of reason are being drowned out, and people are afraid. In Westport, they're afraid they can't discuss the fishing problem without sounding racist. In Toronto, Chinese parents are afraid to take their kids fishing. Meantime, Mr. Zee has been getting abuse from people in the Chinese community who tell him he's not Chinese.

That's what happens when people - such as Ontario's Human Rights Commissioner - are determined to find hate where none exists. Then again, without hate, they wouldn't have a job.

mwente@globeandmail.com