Montreal police removed Muslim woman’s hijab during search, Human Rights Commission says
Claiming a Montreal police officer removed a Muslim woman’s hijab and prayer robe without her permission, the Quebec Human Rights Commission is seeking to have the force ordered to update its search policies to better accommodate religious minorities.
According to documents filed by the commission in a case it’s bringing before the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec, the police intervention — which it describes as “filled with prejudices associating Arab and Muslim people to terrorism” — took place in November 2014 and unfolded before several witnesses.
At the time of the incident, Aicha Essalama was visiting Montreal from Morocco to spend a month with her adult son. The two were on their way back from Friday prayers at a mosque in Laval when police patrollers circled their car.
A Montreal police detective had called Essalama’s son earlier that day to inform him an arrest warrant had been issued against him. He had missed a court hearing in a domestic abuse case in which he was later acquitted.
Her son had asked the detective if he could drop his mother off at home before meeting police away from his house, but the two were circled by patrol cars before making it there.
More than a dozen police officers then rushed out of their cars with their guns pointed at the pair, the legal brief alleges.
“Frightened and panicked,” it continues, Essalama exited the car and tried to run toward her son’s house. Using a loudspeaker, officers told her to get back in the car and place her hands on the dashboard.
Her son was arrested and placed in a police car. Essalama was then asked to get out of the car, where an officer cuffed her hands behind her back.
During the ensuing search, the commission’s lawyers contend, a Montreal police officer asked Essalama if she had any knives or weapons on her, then removed her shoes, abaya and hijab without her permission. The officer then lifted Essalama’s sweater, revealing her stomach and bra, before patting her down and searching through her hair.
“The intervention taking place in the street, the neighbourhood residents, some who were on their balconies, watched the scene,” the document says. “Having found nothing,” it continues, the officer removed Essalama’s handcuffs, gave her back her abaya and hijab and then apologized.
“At no time before, during, or after the search does the SPVM inform the victim of the reason for the police intervention, the reasons for her detention or for the search she was subjected to,” it adds.
For the commission to bring a case to the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec, its lawyers need to have found a person’s complaint has some merit. In Essalama’s case, the commission argues the intervention violated several aspects of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
The officers carried out an intervention “filled with prejudices,” it argues, and by exposing Essalama’s hair to the men present and stomach to others around, the officer “violated (Essalama’s) right to freedom of religion without discrimination.”
According to the commission, the intervention caused Essalama to fear for her life and left her “profoundly humiliated.” She didn’t leave her son’s house for the rest of her visit, it says, and has since needed to consult a psychiatrist in Morocco.
The commission is seeking $19,000 in damages for Essalama. It is also asking the tribunal to order the Montreal police force to update its search policy to better accommodate religious minorities who wear clothing that reflects their beliefs, “in order to minimize the infringement of their rights.”
For Fo Niemi, the executive director of the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, which helped bring the family’s complaint to the commission, the case is an opportunity to set an important precedent for how police forces interact with people who wear clothing for religious purposes.
Niemi believes all law enforcement bodies, from police forces to border patrol agencies, should implement training and policies on how to handle cases involving religious attire.
“It’s a new reality,” Niemi said, “and a question of respecting diversity.”
Citing the ongoing proceedings, the SPVM declined to comment on the intervention or comment on any policies or measures it has in place for searches involving religious attire.
The Montreal police officer who searched Essalama, Annie Brazeau, has been brought before the tribunal before.
In a case last year, the commission said Brazeau had repeatedly called a black correctional services officer “blackie” (“noireau” in French) and imitated his African accent while speaking to his colleagues at a detention centre. The case ended in an out-of-court settlement.