Ontario Provincial Police discriminated against migrant workers on the basis of race when they conducted widescale DNA testing as part of a 2013 sexual-assault investigation, the province’s human-rights tribunal has ruled.
The decision was issued this week, nearly a decade after OPP officers in southwestern Ontario performed DNA tests on 96 migrant workers even though many did not at all resemble the assault suspect’s description – except that they were all Black or brown seasonal agricultural labourers.
The officers’ actions, Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario adjudicator Marla Burstyn wrote in the ruling, constituted “discrimination on the basis of race, colour, and place of origin.”
The decision is the first in Canada to rule specifically on the issue of discrimination by police against migrant workers, who form the backbone of the country’s food system yet live and work under extremely vulnerable conditions – owing in part to the fact that they can be deported at any time.
“I feel good about it. Justice has been served,” said Leon Logan, a former migrant worker of Jamaican origin and the lead applicant in the case that launched in 2015, after police requested his DNA as part of the investigation.
“We are not from Canada, so they thought they could do anything to us.”
“We feel it sends a clear message to police agencies,” said Shane Martinez, the lawyer representing Mr. Logan and the other 54 workers involved with the application.
“The workers here are an example of the oppression and exploitation that’s endured and experienced by tens of thousands of racialized migrant farm workers in this country.”
In October, 2013, a woman in Elgin County – a largely rural area south of London – told police she’d been sexually assaulted in her home. She believed the man who attacked her was potentially a migrant worker, given the proximity of her home to several nearby farms. The suspect, she said, was Black and had a thick, possibly Jamaican accent.
In the following days, OPP officers approached several nearby farms, and asked to conduct cheek swabs on migrant workers there.
In her decision, Ms. Burstyn described how the DNA tests were conducted on workers who “did not match even a generous description” of the suspect. The woman had described a Black male in his 20s, between 5 foot 10 and six foot, and muscular.
Yet officers conducted swabs on Black and brown men of all heights, builds, and ages – including some in their 50s and 60s. They also swabbed men with full beards and moustaches, despite the fact that the victim said he’d had no facial hair just a few days earlier.
In their testimony, OPP officers said that they tested broadly because of their belief that identification by victims of trauma could be unreliable.
Though the OPP asserted that the DNA testing was voluntary, Ms. Burstyn wrote that officers did not consider the extreme vulnerability of those workers – many of whom were escorted to meet with police by their employers. She pointed to a “power imbalance,” and the fact that many workers did not feel they were in a position to refuse.
“Migrant workers are tied to a single employer under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and employers are empowered to fire and deport migrant workers without reason at any time,” Ms. Burstyn wrote.
OPP officers eventually arrested a suspect who was later convicted. The apprehension was not a direct result of the DNA sweep.
A spokesperson for the OPP said that the force is aware of the tribunal’s decision, and reviewing it. They declined to comment further.
Despite the long road leading up to this week’s decision, Mr. Martínez said the concerns are as relevant now as when the application was first filed.
“The systemic inequities are entrenched in the seasonal agricultural foreign workers program – the very same issues that were exploited by the police,” he said. “Those same conditions continue to exist.”
Chris Ramsaroop, an organizer with Justice for Migrant Workers, which advocates for permanent residency and protections for such labourers, echoed this view: “These workers,” he said, “we look at them simply as hands and labour. We don’t see them as people.”
When people hear about the case, “they say, ‘It’s egregious. It’s outrageous.’” Mr. Ramsaroop said. “But from my perspective, this is how the system is built. It’s how it’s designed.”
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