Advocacy group says foreign farm workers approached in a sex assault investigation had only dark skin colour in common.
- Newspaper title
The Toronto Star
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The OPP is facing a formal complaint about racial profiling after as many as 100 migrant farm workers near Tillsonburg were asked to submit DNA samples for an investigation into a violent sexual assault.
Based on the description of the suspect of the Oct. 19 attack, officers from the OPP Elgin County detachment went from farm to farm to collect DNA samples from migrant workers in a wide range of heights, weights and ages.
The only common physical characteristic among the targeted individuals, says the complaint to the Office of Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), is their skin colour.
“Despite the fact that the police had specific details about the suspect that should have narrowed the scope of the investigation (i.e. height, age and physical appearance), all black and brown migrant workers were approached during the DNA sweep,” the complaint states.
“Workers who did not fit the description of the suspect in any way apart from the colour of the skin were included in the sweep and asked to provide a DNA sample.”
The OPP did not respond to the Star’s requests for comment about the complaint.
Although police need to respond to an alleged crime, “it is imperative that they do so within the confines of the law,” said lawyer Shane Martinez, who is representing the advocacy group Justicia for Migrant Workers in the complaint.
“If the police are permitted to conduct an investigation without respect of our rights and engage in deplorable practices such as arbitrary detention and racial profiling, then our legal rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty will be reduced to nothing more than an empty slogan.”
Justicia said that through its interviews at farms, it estimates that 100 men gave DNA samples, 44 of whom they were able to identify.
The four-page complaint says a woman in Bayham, Ont., reported to the OPP that she had been sexually assaulted in her home by an unknown person on Oct. 19. The victim described the suspect as a black male, muscular, between five-foot-ten and six feet tall, in his mid to late 20s, with no facial hair.
The OPP held a news conference in early December to announce the arrest of 35-year-old Henry Cooper, a migrant worker from Trinidad and Tobago, and stated that DNA was the key to the man’s arrest.
Cooper was charged with sexual assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and uttering death threats.
Chris Ramsaroop, an outreach worker with Justicia, said investigators had visited farms in the Tillsonburg area known to employ Caribbean migrant workers after the assault.
He said migrant workers were told to go to a police cruiser and had the nature of the investigation explained to them. They were then asked to sign a waiver and “voluntarily” provide a DNA sample at a nearby van to assist police in identifying the person responsible for the attack.
Ramsaroop said he and other Justicia volunteers spent a week surveying migrant workers who agreed to provide their DNA. The 44 workers they identified ranged in age from 21 to 61, with heights from five feet to six-foot-five, weighing between 130 pounds and 310 pounds.
Cooper was not among those identified by Justicia, said Ramsaroop, and it is not known if the accused had voluntarily provided DNA to the police.
Justicia alleges the workers were targeted because of the colour of their skin and hence discriminated against based on their race, nationality and ethnic origin.
“It seems that the OPP engaged in racial profiling of migrant workers in rural Ontario, using tactics which would immediately be condemned in larger urban settings such as Toronto,” said Martinez.
“This is yet another example of the serious vulnerabilities that these workers struggle with as a result of systemic marginalization and an absence of appropriate safeguards under the law.”
Justicia is asking the Office of Independent Police Review Director to review the case and make recommendations to the province and the Elgin Group Police Services Board.
- Economic sectors
Agriculture and horticulture workers and General farm workers
- Content types
Documented cases of abuse
- Target groups
Public awareness and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks
- Geographical focuses
- Spheres of activity