When it comes to issues of racism and police brutality, Canadians suffer from a bad case of denial. We think these are the problems of people in the United States despite evidence of cops brutalizing Indigenous Canadians and spraying peaceful protesters in the face with pepper spray. It is particularly clear when attacks by authorities come completely unprovoked and the perpetrators scramble to protect their own while the victim is left permanently damaged.
No case demonstrates this so clearly as that of Majiza Philip.
“I was charging them with excessive force and misconduct,” Majiza said of her latest court battle with the Montreal Police (SPVM), a case she is now demanding be reopened. This followed a judge throwing out charges of assault, resisting arrest, and obstruction of justice levied against Majiza by the police in 2014.
Majiza Philip was not looking for trouble. She had been warned by family members in the past to comply with the police who have a habit of thinking the worst of people of colour.
What happened to her was not only a display of police brutality, but of gross injustice. It demonstrates the need for an Ethics Commissioner truly independent from our province’s police forces and the abolition of laws that protect the authorities when they deliberately hurt those they have sworn to protect.
This article will tell Majiza’s story and point out all the mistakes made by those who abused their authority to hurt her. This is her version of events. Since the burden of proof in criminal cases is so high and her account was the one deemed credible by the courts, there is no reason to doubt her story.
One night in November 2014 Majiza and her friend were at a rap concert. Security was high that night due to the rapper’s reputation for drugs and violence.
After the concert her friend was forced to wait outside while she got their coats. He was soon arrested and put in a police car.
Majiza went to check on him and was informed by authorities that he’d been arrested for loitering and public drunkenness. She asked which station they would bring him to and then lightly tapped on the window of the back seat of the police car to get her friend’s attention and see if he was ok.
Suddenly, she felt a push from behind. It was a large white male officer who accused her of assaulting another officer. Majiza backed away in fear and self-defense, rightfully stating that the officer had no right to touch her.
She pleaded with onlookers for help as undeterred, the officer slammed her down on the hood of a police car. With the help of other cops, he began wrenching her arms behind her back. At one point she felt pressure followed by her left arm going limp.
Majiza was shoved into a police car and was only spared the pain of her broken arm in the short time that followed due to the adrenaline from trying to protect herself. She pleaded with the police for help as the pain kicked in and her hands numbed, but they were dismissive.
“They laughed at me a couple of times,” she recalled, noting that they were more interested in discussing their dinner plans.
“It’s REALLY hurting,” she remembers telling the officers, “and they were like ‘Oh, whatever.’ I kept telling them there was pain.”
At this point Majiza didn’t know her arm was broken. All she wanted was the cuffs off so when it finally occurred to the police to ask if she wanted medical attention, she refused.
Prosecutors would later try and use this refusal against her at trial when any medical professional would testify that you have at least fifteen minutes before the pain and extent of your injuries finally kicks in.
It eventually occurred to the police to call an ambulance where EMTs confirmed Majiza’s arm was broken. Before she was lifted into the ambulance, the police attempted to have her sign a notice to appear at her hearing but high on pain and concerned that the document was actually a waiver exonerating those who arrested her, she refused to sign it.
“I’m not signing anything,” she told the police at the time, “I don’t know why I’m here. You never told me I was under arrest.”
She told them to send it to her by mail, and though she was legally entitled to it, she never received anything.
After a disastrous attempt to get care at Saint Luc Hospital – they denied her care because her pain interfered with her ability to speak to medical professionals in French – she was given a sling and a painkiller and sent home. She went to Saint Mary’s hospital in the morning where doctors immediately put her in a cast and booked her for surgery in the following weeks.
She now has a massive scar and pins holding her arm together, the pain returning when the weather is damp. It took over three months before she could go back to work.
Majiza has no criminal record.
In addition to managing a small café in Montreal, she teaches tap-dancing to children and works in her community. The latter jobs require police checks, which she clears every time.
The night she was arrested the only reason the cops had to believe she was a danger was the colour of her skin and the fact that she was at a rap concert. Though the arresting officers made no racial slurs, Majiza points out that though her friend was also arrested that night, he – a white male – was treated far less roughly by police and with a great deal more courtesy than she was. She believes the police have a racism problem as many of them come from places in rural Quebec where attitudes towards ethnic diversity are less than enlightened.
“I just spoke up for him,” Majiza said referring to her friend, “I didn’t assault anybody, didn’t do anything and I got my arm broken and I got hit with a bunch of charges. I can’t say it was racially motivated but I do feel like they treated me differently because I was black.”
When she was able, Majiza Philip contacted the Center for Research- Action on Race Relations (CRARR), a non-profit that works towards diversity and racial equality in Montreal. They helped her file a report with the police Ethics Commissioner who allegedly took her complaint seriously and filed a year-long investigation. Unfortunately, as per the current Loi sur la Police, officers are not legally obligated to cooperate with investigations of complaints against them.
According to Majiza Philip and CRARR, this needs to change as it affords citizens no real justice against police who abuse their power, protecting the cops over the people they hurt.
At her trial she was represented pro-bono by criminal justice lawyer Arij Riahi, facing charges of assault, obstruction of justice, and resisting arrest. Prosecutors tried to argue that Philip had weak bones, making them more susceptible to breaking. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, as Canadian law has long since recognized the “Thin Skull Rule” making a defendant liable for a victim’s injuries even if they’re especially severe due to a pre-existing yet stable condition.
The trial concluded last month with the judge throwing out all charges against her, finding Majiza’s testimony far more credible than that of the officers who mostly spent the trial scrambling to protect themselves with the one responsible for her broken arm conveniently suffering from concussion-induced amnesia. The police never even mentioned at trial that they broke her arm – a fact the judge found outrageous.
Majiza is now demanding that the new Ethics Commissioner reopen her case. With the Ethics Commissioner who handled her complaint now suspended, perhaps she now has a chance of getting justice.
Though the Commissioner has never reopened cases, Majiza can demand it in the face of new evidence. She knows that incidents like hers are more likely to be avoided with the introduction of body cameras on officers, as well mandatory ethnic diversity quotas on the police force. In addition, she calls on the government to change the law and make a police Ethics Commissioner who is truly independent of the people they are charged to investigate.
The Quebec government has two choices here.
They can confirm the stereotypes that Quebec is racist and hostile to ethnic and religious diversity, or they can give victims like Majiza Philip the justice they deserve.
* Featured image by Kym Dominique Ferguson courtesy of Majiza Philip