The RCMP is investigating an upsetting incident in Surrey (BC), where a 16 year-old black girl was handcuffed and taken down in a case of “mistaken identity”. Ruth and Gary Augustine told CBC that they have lodged a formal public complaint on behalf of their daughter, who prefers not to be named in order to avoid harassment on social media.

The teenager says she was waiting at the Newton bus loop last Friday, on her way to a job interview, when two Mounties showed up and started asking her questions. They were apparently looking for someone wanted under the Mental Health Act. She says that she started backing away when they called her a “high-risk mental health patient”. She soon found herself on the ground under the two officers, with her hands behind her back. That’s when a bystander, going by the Facebook name of Ash Hotti, started filming:

The teenager can be heard crying and cursing, shouting “My name is not LaToya, ask me what my name is!”

When one of the officers realizes that the bystander is filming, he threatens to seize the phone as evidence. The bystander demands that the officer explains how it constitutes evidence.

“This is fucking wrong, be ashamed of yourselves!” Hotti later says, assuring the teen: “Don’t worry I got everything on film.”

“Yeah, you can send it to her phone and they’ll get charged,” suggests a second bystander.

When the officers checked the girl’s purse for ID, they found that they had the wrong person. They uncuffed her and left. The teenager told CTV news that neither officers asked her for ID before they tackled her, but that she would have complied if they did.

The Surrey RCMP have issued a statement on Wednesday after the family lodged a public complaint.

“Information was received regarding an individual who was wanted on a Mental Health Act warrant. There were concerns for this individual’s health, safety, and well-being. Officers subsequently located someone matching the description and apprehended a female at this location. Once it was learned that it was not the correct person, the 16-year-old female was released immediately,” stated the letter.

They deemed the situation “extremely unfortunate” and assured that senior investigators are in contact with the family. “We are certainly mindful of her young age and how upsetting this was for her and her family” said Superintendent and Operation officer Ed Boettcher. “I can assure you that we have resources dedicated to investigating the incident.”

People of colour too often misidentified

According to the director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR), Pho Niemi, mistaken identity cases are woefully common, especially for people of colour. “We get a case like that every year,” the director said.

Why? Police descriptions of suspects tend to be a lot less detailed when they’re not about Caucasians. “Almost every time, the description is too broad and race becomes a predominant factor,” says Niemi.

If this was the case in Surrey, he thinks the family should ask for more than an apology and pursue legal action.

“If the police officers were looking only for a young black woman, then they would be in trouble with the law in terms of discrimination,” Niemi affirmed. “It opens up every young black woman in the area to a police arrest and detention.”

Just last February, a man named Errol Burke was held at gunpoint and arrested while trying to buy milk in Montreal, before the police realized they had the wrong man.

Niemi, who has also worked for the Quebec Human Rights Commission, is further concerned about how the officers intervened with a person they thought to be a high-risk mental health patient. He questions whether the officers are trained to handle such cases.

“When one intervenes with a person known to have mental health issues,” he remarked, “there is a way to intervene in order to reduce the likelihood of breaching that person’s civil rights.”

Around 300 people gathered in Montreal on Wednesday to protest police treatment of black people, both here and in the US. Over a thousand people have announced their intention to participate in a similar event this Saturday. The Black Lives Matter movement might be finally picking up momentum in Montreal.

Protesters met in Nelson Mandela Park on Wednesday, responding to the call of the Black Coalition of Quebec. The event was organised in the wake of the tragic events that unfolded last week in the United-States.

It was partly in memory of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, both killed by the police in the space of a couple of days. Several people payed tribute to them and to the five police officers killed by a sniper during a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.

It was also meant to call attention to the way Montreal’s black community is treated by the police. Several speakers stood up on a pick-nick table to address the crowd; some were planned, some were spontaneous. A peaceful march followed and no incidents were reported.

If you missed all of this, you will have another occasion to show your support, this Saturday in Cabot Square. A new Montreal NGO, Twese, is inviting people to gather there at 2pm “to honour the lives lost and express our rejection of police brutality and any kind of racial prejudice.”

Cabot Square is a historically and socially meaningful place for indigenous people in Montreal. Co-founder of Twese Anne-Sophie Tzeuton says that the organisers are aware of the importance of Cabot Square to First Nations and that they want to honour it.

Police brutality and discrimination are also “a huge problem” for First Nations, she noted, “of course we intend to talk about it and we hope many will attend.”

Anne-Sophie Tzeuton, cofounder of Twese and Vice-President of McGill African Students Society
Anne-Sophie Tzeuton, cofounder of Twese and Vice-President of McGill African Students Society

The main objective of Saturday’s event, aside from rallying people to the cause, is “to offer concrete solutions that we can all apply to our daily lives.” Several speakers will take the microphone to that effect. Spoken word performances and other artistic tributes to lives lost in police shootings are also planned.

Tzeuton is happy with the unexpected popularity of the event on Facebook, but she fears that all this attention won’t last. “It often happens, after a tragedy: there is a lot of media attention at once, but it passes and then we forget.”

She hopes the current momentum can be used to discuss lasting solutions before the hype dies down.

Twese (“everybody” in Kinyarwanda) describes itself as a platform encouraging the diasporas to exchange ideas and further a collective reflection about various topics. It was created this summer by four young black women who have played active roles in black student associations in McGill, Concordia and Université de Montréal.

Discussing Canadian Racism

Quebec’s Minister of Public Safety Martin Coiteux reacted amiably to Wednesday’s protest: “We have to be very careful to protect the rights of all minorities in Quebec so I support people who are demonstrating for having equality of rights and we are completely in solidarity with what happened.”

However, according to him, “the situation here is, fortunately, very different to the United States.” He insisted on the importance of preserving “our model here of peaceful coexistence.”

How Different is it Really?

In 2013, the Office of the Correctional Investigator found that native people were alarmingly overrepresented in federal jails. In 2016, aboriginal youth made up 41% of people entering the justice system, despite representing less than 7% of the overall population.

Quebec’s commission of human rights officially recognizes that police forces practice racial profiling since 2010. An internal investigation published that year by the SPVM revealed that in 2006-2007, in Montréal-Nord and Saint-Michel,41% of young black men had had their identity checked, compared to 6% of young white men. The study also found that black people were more often carded for “vague” motives.

Just a couple of months ago, a black man named Jean-Pierre Bony was killed by the police in Montréal-Nord during a drug raid. Bony was shot in the head with a plastic projectile in front of the bar where the raid was conducted. He died in the hospital four days later.

“The only difference between Jean-Pierre Bony and what we’ve been seeing in the U.S is that there was no camera,” remarked Will Prosper, an ex-cop turned black rights activist, in a recent interview with Radio-Canada.

Many Canadians, like Coiteux, feel that the kind of systemic racism observed in the United-States doesn’t happen in Canada. According to Tzeuton, those claims are most often made by people who are racially or socioeconomically privileged.

“It is very easy for people who are not living those problems to claim they don’t exist.”

* Featured image of the April 6th Montreal North protest following the police killing of Jean-Pierre Bony by Gerry Lauzon (creative commons)