Nova Scotia

Woman suing RCMP after N.S. officer forcibly tried to remove her bra

Tracey Jordan is suing the RCMP for discrimination following a forcible strip-search in 2013 that was deemed unlawful by the RCMP’s Civilian Complaint Review Commission.

The 2013 strip-search in Yarmouth was deemed unlawful by the RCMP's watchdog

A lawsuit was filed this week against the RCMP following a 2013 incident in Yarmouth where a woman was restrained while an officer tried to remove her bra. (Shannon VanRaes/Reuters)

A Black woman from Nova Scotia whose strip-search by RCMP officers was deemed unlawful this fall by the force's watchdog is now suing the police service for discrimination and calling for a public apology. 

Tracey Jordan was arrested by the Yarmouth RCMP in 2013; while in custody, she said officers restrained her and one attempted to forcibly remove her bra. 

A suit filed Tuesday against the RCMP in Nova Scotia Supreme Court alleges negligence, sexual assault and battery, as well as a violation of Jordan's charter right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and from discrimination based on sex and race — since she alleges her treatment was because she is Black.

"I'm hoping that the RCMP will do their job differently," Jordan said in an interview. "They did wrong. And I just want them to recognize that, so they don't do it to another lady in cells [in Yarmouth], or anywhere."

The allegations in the suit have not been proven in court.

'I was traumatized'

In April 2013, Jordan was arrested on allegations of creating a disturbance during an altercation in Yarmouth and taken into RCMP custody, where officers put her in a cell. 

"Two minutes at the most, they come back, and they're like, 'Take your bra off,'" she said.

Jordan said she refused and asked to see the RCMP policy that required her to do so.

"They said, no, they don't have to show me nothing," she said.

Jordan said she asked the officers — two men and a woman — for another female officer so that she wouldn't have to take off her bra with male officers present. Instead, she said, the female officer told her, "It's like this: If you don't take your bra off, we're going to take your bra for you."

"I was like, 'I've been sexually assaulted most of my life. Two men aren't going to be touching my body,'" Jordan said.

But she said the officers disregarded her disclosure about being a survivor of sexual assault and entered her cell. She said the male officers held her on the ground while the female officer reached under Jordan's shirt to try and remove her bra.

Eventually, Jordan was allowed to stand up and remove the bra herself with the two male officers still present. 

"I was traumatized," she said.

Strip-search was unlawful: report

This fall, the independent body that investigates complaints against the RCMP issued a report that found the removal of Jordan's bra constituted an unlawful strip-search in violation of the force's policy, and an unreasonable use of force by the officers.

The Civilian Complaint Review Commission (CCRC) made several recommendations in its report, including amending the RCMP policy on the removal of undergarments during personal searches, as well as issuing a written apology to Jordan.

In a call with Jordan in November, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki agreed with the commission's recommendations.

"I had been heard for once in my life," Jordan said.

'Inherently humiliating'

Advocates say the removal of undergarments without justification is a broader issue within the RCMP, even though a 2001 Supreme Court decision called strip-searches "inherently humiliating and degrading," and found the practice to be unlawful, except in specific instances. 

There is no RCMP policy requiring the removal of a bra, said Emma Halpern, executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Association of Mainland Nova Scotia. The exception is in cases where the bra could be used for self-harm. 

"But in other circumstances, on this sort of day to day, absolutely it's unlawful to force somebody to remove their bra," she said.

An October statement from the chairperson of the Civilian Complaint Review Commission said the removal of bras continues to be "commonplace" in a number of detachments. It made note of a 2015 incident in Iqaluit where a woman resisted the forcible removal of her bra, resulting in a broken arm.

Unclear definition of strip-search

A 2017 CRCC report on policing in northern B.C., noted the RCMP's definitions of "strip-search" and "body search" — which is a routine search of someone's clothing when they're arrested —  "are unclear and do not provide sufficient guidance for members to clearly differentiate between the two."

In response to that report, the RCMP changed its policy on strip-searches. But in the report on Jordan's complaint, the CRCC noted the RCMP's revised policy, which includes an additional section on cell block searches, "creates ambiguity in terms of whether the removal of a bra constitutes a strip-search."

When advocates at Elizabeth Fry asked to see the most up-to-date version of the policies on bra removal, they were told the policies were under review and not available. 

"We're extremely concerned that this is continuing," said Halpern. "We would like to have more confidence that every detachment has extremely clear instructions that this cannot happen. But we're not aware that that has occurred."

N.S. case could be turning point

Jordan's complaint, however, may prove to be the turning point.

Following the release of the CCRC report, the RCMP confirmed it would update its policy as a result of Jordan's complaint to clarify that the removal of undergarments is a strip-search, and should not be conducted as part of routine cell block searches. 

But Halpern said while elements of the response to Jordan's complaint, which Elizabeth Fry helped her file in 2017, are positive — including a call that took place in November between Halpern, Jordan and Commissioner Lucki —  it's unclear if the response will include accountability measures for those who violate policy.

"Tracey is tremendously courageous, and fought this over many years so that other women would not have to go through this again," said Halpern. "But really, it remains to be seen if even a citizen like Tracey, who has the strength, and the courage, and the diligence to follow these processes perfectly, can create the change that's needed."

Tracey Jordan was arrested by the RCMP in 2013. While in custody, officers restrained her and one attempted to forcibly remove her bra, in what the RCMP watchdog would go on to call a “highly intrusive” kind of search. (Moira Donovan/CBC)

Call for a public apology

One of the changes Jordan and advocates have been waiting for is a public apology from the RCMP.

In a response to CBC News, an RCMP spokesperson sent a statement acknowledging "that incidents like this are traumatic and we regret the pain and suffering of those who have experienced them." The statement also acknowledged these incidents disproportionately affect individuals who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour. 

Consequently, the statement pointed to a number of measures the RCMP is introducing "that will help to prevent these types of incidents from taking place in the future," including trauma-informed training.

Finally, it said the officers involved in the incident with Jordan will be directed to read the CCRC's final report, and reiterated that RCMP agreed with the commission's recommendations, including on providing an apology, although the statement did not contain one. 

Searching for accountability

Jordan said the suit filed this week won't undo the damage caused by the strip-search in Yarmouth, nor will it reverse the mistrust caused by a lifetime of profiling by law enforcement. 

"It's hard to live with. [When I see] a police officer, RCMP officer, I get anxiety, my guard goes up, and I just feel like they're just going to hurt me again, and then I'm going to be the one in trouble," she said.

But she hopes that, just as she's had to live with the consequences of what happened in 2013, the suit will help cement a mechanism for accountability on the part of the RCMP, too.

"I don't ever want no woman to have to go through what I went through," she said. "And I'm going to keep fighting until [the RCMP] do what they say they're going to do."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.