“CLUMSY” BUT NOT DISCRIMINATORY FOR POLICE TO TELL ANGLOPHONE BLACK DRIVER “YOU LIVE IN QUEBEC, YOU SHOULD SPEAK FRENCH”
Montreal, May 21, 2014 --- It is not discriminatory, but only “clumsy” for a police officer during a routine traffic stop to ask an Anglophone Black woman driving a BMW “How long have you lived in Quebec?” and to tell her three times “You’re in Quebec! You should speak French.”
The Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission came to that conclusion in a recent decision that dismissed a racial profiling complaint.
The decision can be considered as a setback for Anglophones’ civil rights, especially Black Anglophones, who are often exposed to double discrimination based on race and language.
In the early morning of November 10th, 2011, Cindy (not her real name), an English-speaking Black woman in her forties, was driving her silver 2009 BMW 328 Xi along Milan Street in Brossard, a South Shore municipality, with her 22-year old son sitting on the passenger side. She was pulled over by two White male Longueuil police officers, who tailed her car for several blocks, after making eye contact when they pulled up alongside her car. At the beginning of the stop, one officer told Cindy that according to the license plate, the car is registered to someone born in 1966 (as Cindy looks much younger than her age and was dressed in sports clothing) and that at the end of the check, he said to his partner that the BMW was indeed “her car.”
During the ID check, one officer asked Cindy how long she had lived in Quebec after she told him she does not speak French (she understands it better than she speaks it). The officer then asked her how long she has lived in Quebec and told her three times that she should speak French, in a rude tone.
Believing that she had been racially profiled and badly treated due to racial and linguistic bias, Cindy filed a civil rights complaint with CRARR’s help. The Commission dismissed this complaint earlier this month.
The Commission’s decision is seriously flawed due in part to two key errors: i) its failure to directly examine key material evidence, namely Cindy’s car and ii) its failure to properly assess the intersecting race-language discrimination aspect of the complaint.
A prime question is whether the Longueuil police officers had a valid motive to intercept Cindy or whether they intercepted her because she was a Black person driving a BMW at night. The officers claim in their statements that they tailed and intercepted Cindy because her headlights were not on that night. However, this is highly unlikely as Cindy’s car is specifically programmed so that her headlights are turned on automatically (as a matter of fact, in her several years of driving her BMW, she has been often stopped for all kinds of reasons but never for a headlight issue.)
However, instead of directly examining Cindy’s car, as CRARR suggested, the Commission’s investigator consulted the car dealer where she brought her car almost five years ago to inquire about the functioning of headlights on the model of car Cindy drives (the person in question who sold her the car and helped program the car’s light was not interviewed.)
“I find it interesting that the Commission’s investigator went the extra mile to check with the car dealer about my car lights, but did not show any interest or initiative to come out of their office to check my car or talk directly to the person who helped program my car,” said Cindy.
Additionally, Cindy and her son, who was a witness to the entire incident, recall no mention of headlights by the officers at the time of the incident. They only heard about the headlights when they met the Commission’s investigator in 2013. Both mother and son’s testimonies did not carry weight with the Commission.
In addition to discrimination based on race, Cindy’s complaint also alleged discrimination based on the intersecting ground of language. Cindy is not only Black, but also an Anglophone who has a limited command of the French language.
The police officer’s unprofessional, offensive and patronizing comments about her living in Quebec and “should speak French” led to Cindy feeling verbally mistreated during the interception, because the comments were out of context and spoken to Cindy in a demeaning tone in front of her son. Despite this, the Commission qualified the comments in its decision as “maladroit” (or clumsy) and found that they do not rise to the level of discrimination.
“I’m shocked at the Human Rights Commission’s position,” said Cindy.“It just shows that the Commission just does not get it when it comes to discrimination against those of us who are Black and Anglophone,” she added. “Had I been French-speaking, would he have asked me how long I had lived in Quebec? It’s the same as asking whether a Black man can have a name like Joel Debellefeuille.”
Joel Debellefeuille is the English-speaking Black man who was stopped in 2009 while driving his BMW by two Longueuil Police officers in part due to their belief that a Black man cannot have such a Québécois name. The courts eventually declared that Mr. Debellefeuille was indeed a victim of racial profiling. The Human Rights Commission did not accept his civil rights complaint because it was filed past the 6-month deadline to file a civil claim against the city.
Additionally, language was specifically raised in CRARR’s complaint as an “intersecting ground” of discrimination in conjunction with race (“intersectionality” is a legal concept to illustrate how a person’s different features, such as race, gender and language can together lead to distinct and multiple dynamics of discrimination). In its first investigation report, the Commission noted that the case involves discrimination based on race and language. However, in the subsequent complementary investigation report, language discrimination was removed.
According to one of CRARR’s law interns, Stephen De Four-Wyre, who is also Black and Anglophone, “The Commission failed to acknowledge that Cindy was further discriminated against because of language; if she had been a French-speaking Black woman then she more than likely would not have been spoken to in a rude and demeaning manner by the intercepting officers, or have her Quebec residency or her knowledge of French questioned. This is buttressed by the types of questions the officers asked the victim and their response, which was an affront to her dignity.”
“To reduce a police officer’s offensive, patronizing, and out-of-context statements during a routine traffic stop that is deemed discriminatory by the driver and her son, to a level of “clumsiness” is to trivialize the life experience of Black Anglophones and lower the definitional standards of language-based discrimination against Anglophones in Quebec,” he added.
“This decision reminds us of the situation with the Montreal Police Service several years ago, which called officers’ racially discriminatory conduct simply as “inadequate behaviors”, noted CRARR Executive Director Fo Niemi. “It is not a police officer’s power or function to question an Anglophone’s driver about her length of Quebec residency or to make a value judgment about her not speaking French, during a traffic stop.”
Since 2003, the year the Quebec Government began to tackle racial profiling, no racial profiling cases involving Black Anglophones have reached the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal before which only the Human Rights Commission can refer cases.