RCMP indiscriminately collecting DNA from virtually every man in remote Manitoba First Nation

Image description: an aerial view of the First Nations community of Garden Hill, a town of single-storey dwellings and dirt roads on the shore of a large lake. (Image credit: By Timkal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image description: an aerial view of the First Nations community of Garden Hill, a town of single-storey dwellings and dirt roads on the shore of a large lake. (Image credit: Timkal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Questions are being raised by human rights lawyers about the RCMP’s indiscriminate collection of the DNA of thousands of men in the remote Garden Hill First Nation in Manitoba.

The DNA collection is the latest effort by the RCMP to solve the murder of Teresa Robinson, an 11-year-old who was killed in May 2015. Apparently, the Mounties have no leads on the case, and so have started going door-to-door asking every man aged 15-66 to voluntarily provide a sample of their DNA. Roughly two thousand men in that age range live in the fly-in community.

It’s the largest DNA collection effort ever in Manitoba, and possibly in Canada. And some experts say the sheer scope of the collection is cause for concern:

And while a DNA match can crack an unsolved case, [Toronto lawyer Enzo] Rondinelli says these sweeps often focus on the people who refuse to participate.

“It may be narrowing it down to those who say no. Because police then say, ‘Well, hmm, I wonder why the person is saying no.’

“In the eyes of the police, you may now seem suspicious and may actually now come in the crosshairs of a much more greater surveillance than you otherwise would have.”

The lawyer says officers can follow those who refuse and legally pick up anything they throw away in public — a cigarette butt, piece of gum or Tim Hortons cup — to obtain their DNA…

He says he would advise clients against volunteering DNA because it’s their right and police can get it in other ways. And he, adds, labs can make mistakes.

The RCMP have promised to get rid of the DNA after they’ve tested it. The Mounties also insist that anybody who turns them down will not “automatically” become a suspect.

It’s a sensitive issue, because obviously the people of Garden Hill badly want for Robinson’s murderer to be caught, and are eager to help in the RCMP’s effort to solve this case.  A number of people interviewed by the CBC indicated that they’d happily complied with RCMP requests to provide DNA samples, and have urged their neighbours to do the same.

But it seems like a false dilemma and a failure of police investigating. Surely the choice is not between indiscriminate DNA testing and allowing this awful murder to go unsolved.

The question isn’t, Will this tactic be effective? Because, if done properly, it almost surely will be. (Not that DNA testing is without its issues.) The question is, Is this tactic reasonable and just? And the answer to that must surely be no. The justice system is supposedly founded on the presumption of innocence, but this door-to-door DNA collection turns that principle on its head, instead demanding that people prove their innocence or else fall under a cloud of suspicion.

That this tactic is being employed on a racialized minority which has faced systemic discrimination (and frequently violence and brutality) at the hands of the very same RCMP now asking them politely to cooperate is extremely relevant. Winnipeg human rights lawyer Corey Shefman points out the spectre of racism that hangs over every encounter between the RCMP and indigenous communities:

“Particularly if you’re an indigenous person, if a police officer shows up at your door and says, ‘We’d like you to voluntarily give us some of your DNA,’ if you were to say no, the next thing to come out of their mouths is not going to be ‘OK, thanks, have a nice day.’ It’s going to be, ‘Why don’t you want to give us your DNA? Are you hiding something?’ So by refusing, you’re making yourself suspect number one. It isn’t truly voluntary,” he said.

Shefman added that questions must be asked about making generalizations and sweeping conclusions about a group of people — in this case, a First Nations community.

“Some 60 per cent of people in Manitoba jails are indigenous and we can’t ignore that context, particularly because when we talk about how they’re going to door-to-door, they’re asking for people to voluntarily give DNA in Garden Hill First Nation. They’re not going door-to-door in River Heights [an upscale and predominantly white Winnipeg neighbourhood],” he said.

Shefman also casts doubt on the RCMP’s claims that they’ll dispose of the DNA evidence they collect, and to be honest, it’s not like the Mounties exactly have a sterling reputation when it comes to being honest and transparent with the public.

The Mounties have thus far been able to garner public support within the community for their effort – the head of the northern Manitoba chiefs endorsed the collection, for instance – in large part because it’s being done in the pursuit of a laudable goal and promises to bring an end to the cloud of suspicion hanging over Garden Hill. But the tactic they are employing is nonetheless extremely problematic and deserves far greater legal scrutiny.

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