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A case of racial profiling in Ottawa
written by Helen Hsu | Illustration by Alice Shen

In December 31 of last year, my friend Alex – a practicing medical doctor – and I decided to take a road trip to Ottawa to demonstrate in solidarity with the Idle No More movement and ring in the new year on Victoria Island with Chief Theresa Spence. We parked our car and walked over to the island, holding signs displaying our support.

Along the way, we met an Inuit man from Newfoundland named Enock, who has been living on the streets of Ottawa for decades, and invited him to join us for dinner. After we ordered, Enock went out for a smoke. Upon his return, a police officer chased after him, grabbed him by the arm, and loudly and aggressively told him to leave and go outside.

Confused, and scared for Enock, we followed the police up the stairs, at which point Alex bumped into the police officer who was in front of him. The officer accused Alex of attempting to assault him.

Outside in the cold, Enock was being arrested for what we understood to be disturbing the peace. While the police were arresting him, they searched his jacket, found an old, large phone, and proceeded to scream and question him about where he got it from, and whether he stole it.

The Ottawa police have a reputation of racial profiling. In 2005, members of the Ottawa police force were accused of racially profiling an 18-year-old man, Chad Aiken – who is a visible minority – while he was driving his mother’s Mercedes. Aiken alleged that he was taunted and punched in the chest by a police official. In 2008, Stacy Bonds, who is also a visible minority, was arrested for public intoxication. While in custody, she was forced on to the ground, pinned by four police officers, strip searched, and had her bra cut off by a male officer.

In 2003, the Ontario Human Rights Commission issued a report on racial profiling with a section specifically dedicated to Aboriginal peoples. In it, they cite stories of three Aboriginal individuals asked for identification by police officers in a public park full of people, as well as a (an Aboriginal) man stopped by police and accused of stealing a bicycle he had with him simply because he couldn’t produce a receipt.

According to the Correctional Service of Canada, the Aboriginal population, while representing only 2.8 per cent of Canada's population, represents approximately 18.5 per cent of the federal offender population. Adult Aboriginal peoples are incarcerated at more than six times the national rate. Aboriginal inmates are repeatedly deemed to be more of a security threat, as they are often initially placed in higher levels of security, and in minimum security at only half the rate of non-Aboriginal offenders. They also experience longer periods of incarceration with lower grant rates of full parole than non-Aboriginal offenders.

Outside the restaurant, Alex tried talking to the officer who was arresting Enock, while I talked to the family that Enock supposedly disturbed – a middle-aged man, his wife, and a young child. The wife and child did not seem too upset, but the father was very angry, and said Enock had shouted obscenities at him. The wife and child didn’t appear troubled and they walked away while the father stayed behind.

They didn’t believe that Alex was a medical doctor, and one officer approached me and asked me how much Alex had had to drink that night. The answer was none. I refused to show him my ID, however, and after threatening to arrest me for “interfering with [his] investigation,” he deduced that I was a medical student.

“How do you think your school is going to feel about that?” he asked.

When the family finally left, and Enock was driven away in a police car, Alex and I were left standing in the cold. Alex had given his driver’s license to one of the police officers, who sat in his car making us wait. Eventually, we got the license back and moved on.

Unfortunately, Enock was probably not as lucky.