OPP destroys migrant farm workers DNA samples in human rights settlement

An Ontario Provincial Police logo is shown during a press conference in Barrie, Ont., on Wednesday, April 3, 2019. Ontario Provincial Police have destroyed DNA samples collected from migrant farm workers during a human rights-violating sweep in a 2013 sexual assault investigation. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Ontario Provincial Police have destroyed DNA samples collected from nearly 100 migrant farm workers during a sexual assault investigation after the broad sweep was found to have violated human rights.

The destruction of the samples was part of a recently reached settlement between a group of migrant workers and the provincial police force following a human rights complaint by the workers in 2015.

Lawyer Shane Martinez, who represents the migrant workers, said his clients feel relieved and vindicated.

“They are also experiencing for the first time, for many of them, what it’s like to actually have access to justice in Canada,” he said. “The case took nearly a decade to wind its way through since the moment that the DNA samples were collected.”

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled last summer that the OPP discriminated against migrant workers in rural Bayham, Ont., when police took the samples in 2013.

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The case related to a police investigation conducted after a woman who lived alone near several farms reported being violently sexually assaulted in her home.

The DNA samples were collected from 96 seasonal labourers, even though many did not remotely match a description of a sexual assault suspect, aside from being

Black or brown migrant farm workers.

In her human rights tribunal decision, adjudicator Marla Burstyn found the OPP failed to consider the vulnerabilities of the migrant workers, who visibly stand out from the predominantly white community they work in. She also found their employers have most, if not all, the power in their relationship, given the workers’ precarious working conditions.

The settlement, reached in May ahead of a remedies hearing, also requires OPP to develop and implement a DNA canvass protocol and training in compliance with the Human Rights Code. That will take roughly a year to come into effect.

Ontario Provincial Police did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

All 54 applicants who were part of the human rights complaint will receive $7,500 – for a total of $405,000 – in human rights damages. Some of the migrant workers whose DNA was collected were either scared to come forward or unreachable, Martinez said, but all had their samples destroyed.

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The settlement amounts to a “historic” and “complete victory” in a case that details some of the systemic vulnerabilities faced by seasonal agricultural workers, said Martinez.

He noted that the workers often lack opportunities to apply for permanent residency in Canada, can be denied benefits despite paying into the Employment

Insurance system and can be subject to deportation at any time, for any reason.

“So we see all of these different conditions contributing to this overarching climate of fear in Canada for seasonal agricultural migrant workers,” Martinez said.

Martinez said his clients’ case will likely lead to other collective legal actions for migrant workers.

“This is a case that’s really unprecedented by looking at a group of workers this large coming together, organizing among themselves, realizing that if one of them came forward alone, that they would be very vulnerable,” he said. “But that together they have that safety in numbers.”

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