Seven years after she claimed to be roughed up, handcuffed and detained in the back of a police cruiser, the City of Montreal and two of its police officers have been ordered to pay $45,000 to a woman of Arab origin in compensation for ethnic and social profiling.
Amal Asmar, who now lives in Saskatchewan, said her long fight was worth it. The Quebec Human Rights Commission issued its decision Tuesday.
"I am very satisfied with this long-awaited victory that will restore not only my fundamental rights, but will also serve people of colour and socially disadvantaged people such as homeless people in Montreal," said Asmar, who now works as a maternal and infant health co-ordinator in a First Nations community.
The incident dates back to 2010 when Asmar, a student at Concordia at the time, was arrested by constables Sébastien Champoux and Michael McIntyre in downtown Montreal.
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While on her way to a friend's house, she stopped to sit on a bench on Ste-Catherine Street outside Alexis-Nihon Plaza around 3 a.m. after a late night at the library studying for midterms.
A police cruiser pulled up beside her, and Asmar says she was aggressively questioned, then pushed up against the car and handcuffed. She was then searched and put in the back of the cruiser.
She received two fines for the incident: a $620 ticket for making noise and a $480 ticket for using municipal property — in this case, the bench — improperly.
The fines were later dropped by the city.
Asmar, who was wearing a kaffiyeh (a black-and-white scarf commonly worn in the Middle East) at the time, argued she was singled out for her ethnicity and mistaken for a homeless person, who are known to frequent the area near Atwater Metro.
Officers abused authority, commission says
In its decision, the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that the two police officers "lacked respect and politeness," abused their position of authority and detained Asmar without just cause.
The commission said the City of Montreal and the officers should pay $30,000 in moral damages. The city was also ordered to pay $10,000 in punitive damages, while each officer was ordered to pay $2,500.
It also recommended taking steps to avoid social and ethnic profiling in future.
The decision is non-binding and the city and officers have so far not paid the fines.
In an email, a spokesperson for Montreal police said the force will study the decision.
Quebec's Human Rights Tribunal, which is part of the Quebec Court, will likely be asked to rule on the matter, according to Fo Niemi, head of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations.
In an interview, Niemi said it was the first time the commission has recognized that a person has been both a victim of racial profiling and social profiling.
The tribunal could impose fines of its own or order Montreal police to make other changes to address profiling, including releasing data tracking complaints, he said.
Niemi said it could take the tribunal up to a year to reach a decision.
Montreal police have been dogged by allegations of racial profiling for years. A 2010 report by the Quebec Human Rights Commission found that ethnic minorities in the province are subject to "police surveillance that is targeted and disproportionate."