A human-rights tribunal in Ontario, Canada, has delivered a historic ruling in an almost decade-old legal battle between 54 migrant farm workers and the Ontario Provincial Police.
Last month, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) ruled that the farm workers were targeted by police solely on the basis of their skin colour and their status as migrant farmworkers.
In November last year, the tribunal heard the lawsuit by the migrant farm workers which included several Trinidad and Jamaican men who alleged racist policing practices.
They were represented by the group Justice for Migrant Workers. Their lawsuit stemmed from an October 2013 sexual assault near Bayham, Ontario, when the Ontario Provincial Police did a DNA sweep to collect samples from approximately 95 migrant farmworkers employed in the region.
Justice for Migrant Workers said the police’s investigation was done with what appeared to be a total disregard for the detailed suspect description given by the victim.
The group said DNA samples were taken from Indo and Afro-Caribbean men from Jamaica and Trinidad.
It also said the workers were targeted solely on the basis of their skin colour and their status as migrant farmworkers.
Some 54 of the affected migrant farmworkers filed joint human-rights applications with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Their attorneys argued that the DNA sweep and the manner in which it was done was racial discrimination that violated their rights under section 1 of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.
The tribunal found that the DNA samples were taken from the farmworkers even if they had alibis or did not match the suspect’s description.
“A police request for DNA from a person for forensic analysis as a method to investigate a crime, even when the request is voluntary, is a significant intrusion on one’s personal privacy and places a high degree of scrutiny on a person,” the tribunal found.
The tribunal found that the police’s conduct during the DNA sweep was contrary to section 1 of Ontario’s Human Rights Code and that it violated the workers’ right to be free from discrimination by improperly targeting them on the basis of race, skin colour, and place of origin.
“If the DNA canvass was discriminatory and in violation of the Code, the success of the DNA canvass does not justify the conduct. In other words, the end cannot justify the means.”
“In the context of these migrant workers who visibly stand out, and are a clearly differentiated minority group from this rural white community, one can readily see from this evidence how relying solely or predominantly on their migrant worker status in selecting them for investigation of a crime when additional information was available, subjected them to over-investigation by police.”
Monetary compensation was ordered for Leon Logan, the lead applicant in the complaint, and the parties reached an agreement for the remaining 53 to receive an award.
Another hearing to address public interest remedies is expected to be held. At that hearing, the group will be asking for an order that their DNA samples be destroyed and the Ontario police develop a policy to ensure DNA sweeps are compliant with the human rights code.
Attorney Chris Ramsaroop said the tribunal’s ruling was a “significant victory by a group of courageous workers whose strength in numbers and a burning desire for change lead to today’s victory.
“These workers fought and will continue to fight to end criminalisation, and racist police practices. This isn’t about a few bad apples though; the entire system is rotten to its core.”
Attorney Shane Martinez, who argued the case for the farmworkers, said, “While this decision represents a landmark victory, it also reminds us of the significant work that remains to be done to understand and combat anti-black racism and its impact on migrant farmworkers across Canada. The oppression and exploitation endured by tens of thousands of racialised migrant farmworkers in this country is a shameful part of both Canadian history and our present-day reality.”
Justice for Migrant Workers said the case was the first in Canada to examine allegations of systemic racial profiling and discrimination by the police towards migrant farmworkers.
“It is anticipated that it will expose not only the inherent vulnerabilities that workers are exposed to under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, but how those vulnerabilities were exploited by the police in their execution of the 2013 DNA sweep,” the group said in 2021.