On April 9, 2007 Félix Fini and his girlfriend Christy Coulibaly were driving home from a friend’s party when they were stopped by a Service de police de la ville de Montréal (SPVM) squad car for a routine traffic stop. The incident spawned a two-year legal struggle with the City of Montreal that culminated on February 5 with the Quebec Human Rights Commission recommendation that the couple receive $10,000 each in damages for violation of their civic rights based on ethnic or national origin.
From the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso respectively, Fini and Coulibaly graduated from the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières in 2007. They both arrived in Canada in 2002, but Fini was not eligible to use a Quebec driver’s license. As a result, when stopped in 2007, Fini presented the police officer with his license from the Ivory Coast that he was authorized to use temporarily.
After a background check, the police officer told Fini his license was suspended due to an unpaid ticket. Fini was unaware of the suspension as he and Coulibaly had recently moved, and had not received notice in the mail. The police officer also noted that the car was not registered in Fini’s name – it was registered to Coulibaly.
The couple waited outside the car with their two-month old baby for the entirety of the 45-minute stop. The officer refused Fini and Coulibaly’s request to allow their baby to sit in the police car during their questioning. Their child continues to suffer from respiratory problems as a result of the incident.
In her court deposition over two years later, the officer stated that she told Fini he could “go live elsewhere” and should return to his country when he became frustrated and criticized Quebec law.
Fo Niemi is the Executive Director for the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), who assisted Fini and Coulibaly in their case.
“In dealing with racial profiling the evidence is never directly explicit…[but] in this case, what is a dead giveaway is the kind of comments made by the police officer that reveal a certain degree of racial bias,” Niemi said. “We felt that, based on the information he provided, it was a case of driving while black – a routine traffic stop that could’ve been influenced by his race.”
In a CRARR press release, Fini described the recommendation as “a nice moral victory for us.” The SPVM declined to comment on the decision.
“The SPVM is part of the City,” said SPVM spokesperson Marie-Hélène Ladouceur. “Even though there’s two officers involved, we don’t comment.”
“There’s always a possibility that we can go on appeal,” continued Ladouceur.
Niemi said he doesn’t expect Fini and Coulibaly to receive the recommended reparations from the City of Montreal any time soon. The Commission’s recommendation is not legally binding, and Niemi predicted that the City would continue to drag the case out for “a couple more years” before offering the minimum $500 per person settlement. He said that in the last three years CRARR has only won six of over sixty cases brought to the Quebec Human Rights Commission.
“The problem with these cases I’ve mentioned is that the investigation takes very long – partly because of the legal obstruction tactics used by the City to make these cases,” said Niemi.
“Often they say, ‘Well, they took too long to investigate so the delay caused prejudice to our police officer,’ so the City would make a motion to have the case dismissed on procedural grounds of delay,” explained Niemi. “And they keep appealing. And every time it appeals it prevents the case from being addressed on its merits.”
Dan Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec, lamented that the investigative process into racial profiling does not favour the victims.
“In these cases it’s the police that investigates the police, and the results are always the same,” said Philip. “What you find is there is no access to justice, and that’s a very serious situation.”
Niemi also described how some young black men are arrested on dubious charges as a part of anti-gang tactics. He described an incident involving a black man in the summer, who had just come out of a bar on Crescent early one Sunday morning.
“He came out of the bar, [and] just leaned against the building, waiting for his friends to come out,” said Niemi. “He was arrested, handcuffed and fined for violation of a municipal by-law. And what does the by-law say? ‘Thou shalt not obstruct the circulation of pedestrians’ – because he was leaning against a building.”
Niemi was confident that such tactics are being phased out under new Police Chief Marc Parent, who was appointed in September. Parent pledged to crack down on racial profiling by re-prioritizing gangbusting tactics.
“Personally I have worked on some occasion with Marc Parent,” said Niemi, “and I can tell you that the change in the tone and in some of the orientations that have taken place since he became chief are very noticeable.”
Philip, however, was less optimistic about the prospect of change.
“There might be, for the time being, less cases, but there has been nothing put in place in order to stop racial profiling,” he said. “Nothing has changed as far as I’m concerned.”