Blue Line

10 years later, migrant workers get payout over police DNA dragnet

July 31, 2023  By Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

July 31, 2023, London, Ont. – Junior Modeste says he’s still traumatized from the day Ontario Provincial Police approached him and other migrant workers for DNA samples.

“It was a cold day. We were all getting back to the bunkhouses, and (the farm owner) said there were some people here who wanted to speak to us,” said Modeste, who is from Trinidad and Tobago and was working at a farm in Vienna, Elgin County, that day in 2013. “It was the OPP.”

Modeste was “shoved into” the backseat of an unmarked police car, where he was interviewed before he was swabbed, he said. “I was confused. I was totally confused.”

Not being from Canada, Modeste said he felt he had no choice but to comply with police because “he didn’t know his rights.”

Later, he would learn that OPP officers were collecting DNA samples from dozens of migrant workers in Elgin County as part of an investigation into a violent sexual assault in nearby Bayham Township in October 2013.

He’d wound up with police for hours before he was allowed to return to his bunkhouse. “It’s very traumatizing. That was the first time this happened to me.”

Sunday, Modeste and 32 other migrant workers caught up in the DNA sweep a decade ago received $7,500 cheques as part of a settlement reached with provincial police and the Solicitor General of Ontario last month.

“It’s a sweet taste of victory,” Modeste said at Victoria Park in London, where more than 100 current and past migrant workers and their allies gathered to celebrate the landmark deal with a meal and a march.

“But the victory is not even the tip of the iceberg. We have a long way to go for equal rights (of migrant workers) in Canada,” he said.

The settlement followed the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario ruling last August that OPP violated the rights of 96 migrant workers caught up in the DNA dragnet – a move investigators said helped solve the case, but critics ripped as racial profiling – during the 2013 investigation.

In the deal with the 54 workers in the case, OPP agreed to pay each of them $7,500 in damages, destroy the DNA profiles collected in the sweep, seal the workers’ personal information in police files, and develop policies and procedures for DNA sweeps.

“There’s a sense of relief that (the case) is done. And for the workers who had been so engaged during the whole process, there’s a sense of vindication for them,” the workers’ lawyer, Shane Martinez, said Sunday.

“Everything that they called for from the beginning of the case they were able to receive,” he said.

Martinez collaborated with Justicia for Migrant Workers in pursuing the action. The grassroots group represented the temporary foreign workers and launched the complaint about the police investigation.

Ontario’s agricultural industry relies on some 20,000 offshore workers annually. Their role in agriculture is critical, but they are subjected to physical and systemic discrimination where they work and live, noted Ramsaroop.

“The way the system is set up, it disempowers workers,” he said. “It takes away the ability for workers to have access to justice. Part of what today (focuses on) is how do we try to build upon this?”

The DNA dragnet in 2013 eventually led to the arrest of a suspect in the case.

A month after the woman was sexually assaulted at her home, police identified Henry Cooper – one of two migrant workers who refused to give a sample – as a suspect. Investigators collected his discarded cigarette butt and other evidence and matched it to the suspect’s genetic profile.

Cooper was sentenced to seven years in prison.

For many workers caught up in the decade-old sweep, Sunday’s celebration offered a sense of closure.

“It’s a lot. I feel good about it,” said Keevin Sinclair, who left farm work during the pandemic and now works in construction. “It’s not all about what happened. It’s about (making sure) it won’t happen again.”

– London Free Press

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