New Brunswick

'We were shaking': Passenger explains complaint against Fredericton police

It could have been a routine Fredericton traffic stop — except every woman in the car was left shaken and terrified and feeling violated, according to a passenger.

Driver told officer repeatedly that she wanted service in French, woman says

The New Brunswick Police Commission will investigate a service complaint and a conduct complaint under two sections of the New Brunswick Police Act. (Daniel McHardie/CBC)

Four young women piled into a car and headed to Mactaquac Beach, but they didn't get far that hot Sunday afternoon before the Fredericton police pulled them over.

It could have been a routine traffic stop — except that everyone in the car was left shaken and frightened and feeling violated, according to a passenger.

It was so rude. She only asked to obtain service in French.- Passenger in car stopped by Fredericton police

Two of the women later filed an eight-page complaint about what they called unprofessional, intimidating treatment after the driver told the police she could not speak English and asked the traffic stop be conducted in French.

Now, one of the women is speaking out because she believes city hall misrepresented the complaint to the public and downplayed what happened at the side of Smythe Street.

Police commission to investigate language complaint against Fredericton police

A language barrier may have launched the frustrating exchange that afternoon, but it was police behaviour that provoked the complaint to the Fredericton Police Force, said the woman, a lawyer with the public sector.

CBC News is protecting the woman's identity because she fears for her safety.

The passenger and the driver wrote the complaint, which details what happened after the car was pulled over on Smythe Street because of an out-of-date registration sticker at 1 p.m. on June 11.

A second police car also stopped, and that officer stood by the cruiser as the first officer approached the women's car, and participants in the city's Rib Fest milled about, the women said.

The first officer "came to my friend's window and said the active offer, which is 'Hello, bonjour' and my friend answered by 'Bonjour,'" the passenger said in an interview. "As soon as he started speaking, we could see and feel like he was mad or something.

"He just continued speaking English to my friend and asking her to identify herself, starting to explain and saying stuff about why she was pulled over. My friend was not understanding."

Language of choice

To ensure compliance with the New Brunswick Official Languages Act, Fredericton peace officers are supposed to use a greeting with a particular wording to initiate the "active offer" of service in either French of English, the force said in a statement.

The greeting goes: "Hello, Bonjour. It's your right to be served in English or French. C'est votre droit d'être servi en français ou anglais, What is your choice?  Quel est votre choix?"

But that didn't happen, the passenger said.

"He was saying stuff and [the driver] kept asking, 'En francais, s'il vous plais, Je ne parle pas anglais'... I don't really speak English. French please.'"

The passenger said that multiple times, the officer said, "'I don't speak French. You speak English.'"

Agreed to wait for service

The passenger said her friend was becoming more intimidated and stressed while trying to co-operate, and all four women in the car were in disbelief.

"It was so rude," she said. "She only asked to obtain service in French."

Eventually, she said, the officer told them the wait for a French-speaking officer would be 30 to 45 minutes, to which the driver responded in French that she would wait.

But the English-speaking officer then asked for proof of insurance, she said. When her friend didn't understand him, the officer yelled that he would fine her for failure to produce insurance, the passenger said.

Language of choice

At this point, the passenger informed the officer in French and English that she was a lawyer and asked him to respect her friend's right to be served in the language of her choice.

"He looked at me and said, 'Oh, you're a lawyer. Well you know about obstruction then,' and I answered 'Well, I know about the Languages Act and rights also.'"

She said the officer kept telling the women to speak English because he didn't speak French.

"I just replied again, 'it's a right.'"

'It was intimidating'

Soon the officer was shouting at the second police officer, who opened the passenger door and began yelling at the passenger, she said.

"You speak English, you speak English, I know you speak English,'" the woman recalled the officer saying. "I just couldn't believe it. We were shaking."

She said that despite her fear, she told the officer in French that all they asked for was to be served in French, which was their right, adding: "Je parle Francais, je parle Francais, je parle Francais."

"Honestly, if you ask me right now, how I was able to do it, respond like that and not be afraid … I just don't know how I did it. It was so intimidating, but I guess inside of me I knew it was my right and we didn't do nothing wrong."

Both officers left the car and 15 minutes later, an officer who was not in uniform and who spoke fluent French, arrived and dealt with the traffic stop, the passenger said. The driver was issued tickets for an expired registration and failure to produce proof of insurance.

Complaint filed

The women continued to the beach, and the complaint was filed June 13.

On July 7, the City of Fredericton said in a news release that "in the spirit of transparency and public interest," it asked the New Brunswick Police Commission to handle the complaint.

It is being investigated as a service complaint and a conduct complaint.

Steve Roberge, the executive director of the police commission, said it was called in to ensure an independent investigation.

"The police commission is the independent civilian oversight of law enforcement."

Steve Roberge, executive director of the New Brunswick Police Commission, says an investigator will be appointed soon to look into a complaint about a traffic stop that two women suggest got out of hand. (CBC)

Roberge would not discuss the allegations other than to say the complaint was in respect to the level of French service provided by the officers and their conduct.

He said an investigator will be appointed within days and should complete the work in six months.

The city said it will not comment any further.

Inaccurate information

After CBC New Brunswick published a story about the complaint, the passenger said the women in the car were saddened and shocked to see some of the hateful comments posted on Facebook. She felt the city's news release was not an accurate portrayal of the situation.

Days after the city's release, communications manager Wayne Knorr clarified some of the information in it, including the number of officers involved in the traffic stop and the date the complaint was made.

The woman said she wanted people to hear her account so they would understand the complaint wasn't a matter of the officer's inability to speak French, but how the women were allegedly treated after the driver said she did not understand English.

"We were treated like second and third and fourth-class citizens for simply asking for a right to be respected politely, calmly."