Hearing towers over OPP’s DNA sweep of migrant workers

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A long-awaited human rights hearing is set to begin Monday over a DNA test of migrant workers by police following a 2013 sexual assault in eastern Elgin County.

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54 of the workers caught in the October 2013 DNA sweep by Elgin OPP are bringing their complaint against the province to the Ontario Human Rights Court. The hearing is scheduled to last five to six days, said Chris Ramsaroop of Justicia for Migrant Workers, the group that initiated the complaint over the police investigation.

“We would argue that several parts of the human rights code have been violated,” Ramsaroop said. “We need to ensure that steps are taken to ensure that this practice does not happen again, the widespread criminalization of a society.”

In October 2013, Elgin OPP collected voluntary DNA samples from about 100 migrant workers in Bayham Township as part of the investigation into a violent sexual assault in the area. Investigators tried to compare the samples with a DNA profile of the suspect, which was generated from a sexual assault kit and evidence left at the scene.

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The suspect was described as black and five-foot-ten to six-foot tall. Investigators collected DNA samples from a wide range of workers who were five-foot-two to six-foot-six and 22 to 68-year-olds.

Although it is more than eight years since the DNA sweep, police investigative tactics have left a lasting impression on the people targeted, said Shane Martínez, the pro bono lawyer for the 54 migrant workers.

“It’s important to them, it affected them a lot. Many of them still feel the psychological effect of it,” Martínez said. “I think everyone is looking forward to finally getting this out in the open.”

Not all workers caught in the 2013 police wanted to participate in the human rights court case, Martínez said. Some are still working on farms and were worried about losing employment opportunities, he said.

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“These 54 workers came together… With the idea that there is security in numbers,” Martínez said.

“Migrant workers are a very invisible population. . . . “This is an example of something that happened to these workers quietly in a rural community that would never be tolerated by Canadian citizens in a major city center.”

Some workers have filed a class action lawsuit against the province, claiming that the DNA samples collected in the Bayham drag network were not destroyed.

A small number of workers refused to comply with the DNA test, including Henry Cooper of Trinidad. Police collected one of Cooper’s discarded cigarette butts and other evidence, including a can, tested it for DNA and filed charges.

Cooper pleaded guilty to sexual assault with weapons, forced imprisonment and uttering death threats in June 2014 and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

jbieman@postmedia.com

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