Angela Dawson, a transgender woman known to many Vancouverites as "Roller Girl," has won a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal case against Vancouver police, after being refused access to medical care in jail and referred to as "Jeffrey."

The tribunal found that since Dawson informed officers that she was a transgender female and was not treated as such, she was discriminated against on the basis of sex.

Vancouver Police Board has now been ordered to pay Dawson $15,000 as damages for "injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect."

Dawson's lawyer Lindsay Lyster said she and her client are both pleased with the outcome. 

"I think that the decision sends a very strong message that trans people must be treated with equal dignity and respect," Lyster said.

"In particular, police officers — whom the tribunal recognizes have a very difficult job — need to be provided with the support by their own police department to ensure that they can deal with trans people appropriately and without discrimination."

'Roller Girl' well known in Vancouver

Dawson is a familiar face in downtown Vancouver and on the city's Downtown Eastside, where she can often be seen in her trademark bright pink outfits and big headphones, whizzing around on pink rollerblades.

According to the tribunal's decision, Dawson was born intersex in 1968, but was given the name Jeffrey Allan Dawson and assigned a male gender at her father's insistence. She says she has identified as a female since her teens.

Dawson testified she fled an abusive family home when she was 16 and never graduated high school. She went on to rack up an extensive criminal history, involving violence, drugs and fraud.

She has previously been convicted of manslaughter and spent at least 10 years in a male penitentiary. In more recent years, Vancouver police have had numerous encounters with Dawson, frequently ticketing her for trying to direct traffic.

Post-surgery care refused

In her human rights case, Dawson claimed she suffered discrimination in six separate incidents with police. The tribunal found that in two of these incidents, police discriminated against Dawson.

In the first incident, on March 29, 2010, Dawson was arrested for breach of her probation relating to a previous incident in Vancouver.

The arrest came 11 days after she had undergone gender reassignment surgery, for which she was required to perform certain post-surgery procedures several times a day to ensure the success of the surgery and prevent infection.

According to the tribunal's decision, Dawson repeatedly told police and medical staff in the jail of her need for this medical treatment, but was denied the care she needed throughout her overnight stay.

"Her claim that she needed to undergo post-surgical treatment was not taken seriously," wrote tribunal member Catherine McCreary.

"There is clear evidence from Ms. Dawson’s testimony that she experienced emotional and psychological trauma as a result of her interaction with staff at the jail, particularly nursing staff."

Referred to as 'Jeffrey'

The second occasion of discrimination came on June 18, 2010 when she claims someone tried to pick a fight with her in the street. Responding officers asked her to leave the scene. She refused and was arrested.

On being taken into custody, Dawson again expressed her concerns over her post-surgery medical needs, but again, the tribunal found, she was refused access to treatment during the eight hours she was incarcerated.

The tribunal also found Dawson was discriminated against on this occasion when officers referred to her as "Jeffrey" and used male pronouns to describe her.

"Ms. Dawson...says she has identified as a woman for a long time, she has gone so far as to have gender-reassignment surgery. She dresses and lives as a woman. I find that not to be treated as a woman is hurtful to her," wrote McCreary.

'Systemic discrimination of trans people'

Vancouver Police Board has also been ordered to adopt policies within the next year that recognize and prevent discrimination of identification of transgender people.

"The VPB has engaged in systemic discrimination of trans people concerning their identification," wrote McCreary.

"It seems to me that the VPB has virtually no policies or training of officers on how to appropriately deal with trans people without discrimination."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, who is chair of the police board, said in a statement that he will be reviewing the decision with the department.

"The City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department have the highest level of respect and appreciation for our city’s remarkable diversity, and a firm commitment to protect the rights and freedoms of the LGBTTQ community and all Vancouver residents," he said.

Vancouver police Const. Brian Montague said the department will carefully review the decision to ensure the safety of anyone in custody remains a top priority. 

"Our officers are hired and trained based on some fundamental core values," he said.

"One of those core values is respect, and we expect our officers to be respectful of each and every one of the hundreds of people they encounter on a daily basis."

Read the full B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision


  • An earlier version of this story described only one of the two instances in which police discriminated against Angela Dawson. The story has now been updated to reflect both occasions and the circumstances of the tribunal's decision more fully.
    Mar 27, 2015 12:10 AM PT