Montreal: Library heaven, police hell

I moved to Montreal in early May, 2010, found myself a place to live, and settled in. My first day in Montreal I went to the Grand Bibliotheque to use their computers, since I'd been on the Greyhound for three days straight and needed to check my email. I was worried that the hostel wifi wouldn't work for me. (It did, so I didn't need to go back.)

The Grand Bibliotheque has prominent 'no bare feet' signs at the high security entrance, so I had to ask at the front desk if I could go in anyways. I showed someone my doctor's note and the letter the Vancouver Public Library gave me to let me be an exception, and after a brief discussion I was allowed in and given a guest pass for the computer. I would have liked to wander through the library but was intimidated because they have security on each floor and the people at the front desk would have had to alert the security on each floor. So I have never actually seen most of the library. But I could see it if I were willing to have to deal with the security hassle.

I didn't have any other problems in my early Montreal days with my bare feet (except making some potential roommates wonder about me). If there was a rule for public transit I didn't know about it (nothing on their website), and no hassle in stores either. When I went to use the local library, I saw a sign in small letters at one entrance, but snuck in in my longer skirts until I had all my essential moving in internet stuff done, then wrote their head office and asked what to do. They sent me an email back saying to show people my doctor's note if they asked and that was it! Since then I have been checked up on by staff at two library branches (I've been to only four so far, mostly those two), but there hasn't been any real hassle. I thought: Montreal is truly wonderful! Halfway to Europe (where bare feet are more accepted)! I love it here!

But then I started having run ins with the police. Terry stops they're called, where they stop you and question you and maybe search your bags and demand ID, which they run through their system. Terry stops are perfectly legal if it's obvious you're up to no good. They're also legal if it looks like you're suicidal. I'm pretty sure, though, that walking while autistic isn't a valid reason for a Terry stop.

I was really shaken the first time and tried not to think of it. That was July 2010. They told me they were stopping me because I was barefoot and they thought it meant I was an escapee from the psych ward. And I later figured out that they were running my ID because it's only legal for them to take me into the hospital against my will if there's a report on me in the system. I'm kind of sure that the way it's supposed to work is that if they arrest me for doing something wrong and my name is in the system as a psych patient, they're supposed to take me to the hospital instead of the jail. I'm pretty sure they're not allowed to do random stops to see if they can cart us away just because they don't like the look of us. But they seem to disagree.

My second Terry stop was in late September 2010. Same deal. I was carrying a small appliance home from the Canadian Tire at Place Alexis Nihon, having a nice time, and they pulled up and stopped me, demanded ID, all that.

My third stop was more fun. I had gone to the Salvation Army to buy furniture, and saw a chair I really liked. I really didn't feel like paying delivery fees for one chair, so I carried it home instead. I weighed it later and it was 30lbs. At the time I only thought 'Gee, this is heavier than I thought!'. I had carried it 1.5 km of the total 2.5 km to my home when the police stopped me. They told me to put down the chair, and I said I didn't think I could get it back onto my head there because there were no benches to help myself up with. (I was carrying it on my head and shoulders because it was too heavy and awkward to carry any other way.) The officer said 'Put down the chair' in a tone of voice that sounded like 'Put down the weapon'. Then they did the usual Terry stop stuff: demanding ID, telling me they'd gotten a call about me. Then they put my chair in their trunk and gave me a ride home. The highlight was when they needed a bungee cord to secure the chair, and called for backup. So there I am with two police cars with lights flashing, while police officers attempt to secure my chair in their trunk. Then in the car, there is no leg room in the back! I am short (5'1.5"/156cm) and I had an inch of clearance in front of my knees. The vast majority of criminals are men, and are likely to have much longer legs. I guess they have to sit sideways. And of course you can't open the back doors from the inside. This was November 2010. And yes, the police deliver furniture.

There was nothing for a while, then I had four more Terry stops in a three week period in mid-January to early February 2011, including two in one day. I think it was the same people, who didn't have time to run my ID the first time so sought me out for a repeat visit. The fourth stop I was made to miss my bus. Because apparently standing at a bus stop is justification for a Terry stop. Then there wasn't anything for a while, then in March I was walking to the library on a warm winter day. I passed a Hamstead security officer in his van, then a short while later I was stopped by Montreal police, while he watched from a safe distance. They kept talking to me, and asked to search my pack (the first time I had my pack searched). I didn't know I had the right to refuse searches and consented, but it's possible they would have searched me anyways. I don't know. It was kind of scary how the interview just went on and on. Finally they let me go, when they couldn't find any reason to arrest me. They always seem so disappointed when they get to that point.

do I look scary?

You can tell I'm dangerous because I have my hands in my pockets. And yeah, I don't take my own picture very well. (Grimace.)

I think this was when I realized I needed to make a formal complaint. I started going to McGill University library to look up research on mental illness/autism and the police, so that when I ranted, I would rant accurately. I emailed the Society for Barefoot Living to see if other barefooters had this sort of problem, since I didn't think so, but you never know. (They don't, with one or two exceptions.) And I started a thread on Wrong Planet asking autistic people the same thing. Autistic people do sometimes get stopped for no reason ("walking while autistic"), barefooters generally don't. It was worse for me because I'm autistic, and therefore look suspicious, and I'm barefoot, which clinches it! Barefooters don't normally stand out enough to get that kind of attention. If you're a non-disabled, non-mentally ill barefooter, you'll probably be fine. It's only crips like me who tend to run into trouble.

The stops continued. I was stopped briefly by an officer in Outremont when I was checking out fabric stores, but he didn't demand ID, just asked me a couple of questions and apologized but said he'd had a call about me and had to make sure I was ok. That's supposed to be how it happens. Then I was stopped while walking home from downtown. There were three officers this time, who were out on another call when one of them noticed me and stopped me. This Terry stop took 15 minutes, because first she ran my ID, then one of her colleagues ran it again, then an ambulance showed up (she'd called them) and they demanded ID (good thing I had more than one piece on me) and then I had to sign a waiver because I refused to let them examine my feet. Did I tell you it took 15 minutes? It took 15 minutes. Most Terry stops only take about 5 minutes, which is still 5 minutes longer than I want to be stopped, but all of a sudden 5 minutes didn't seem so bad. The wind was cold, too.

That's when I wrote the police with a formal complaint. I heard back a month or so later and was told that of course it was my fault because I was barefoot, but that they would take my special situation into consideration. (Apparently you need a waiver to go barefoot on the sidewalk in Montreal, but only if you appear to be mentally ill. Regular barefooters need not fear!)

And then, heaven! 6 months with no Terry stops whatsoever.

But it couldn't last.

Last December, we had a nice warm day and I decided to walk the 8km each way to the Lachine rapids. It was sunny, a high of 9°C, and I was a bit warm with all my extra layers. I got stopped. The police officer in charge (the one with better English, I think) told me they had had five calls about me. Do I get an award for that? The Terry stop took 30 minutes. I guess that was my award. I had been reading up a bit on my legal rights and asked if I was legally required to provide the ID they demanded. (I didn't know they're legally allowed to lie to me.) I was told I could be charged with obstruction or something if I didn't comply. I handed over the ID. Then when one of them went to search my backpack I asked if I was legally obligated to comply, and was told yes. (The answer was no - they had no reason whatsoever to believe I was carrying weapons or anything else that would have justified it.) Then we had to wait for the ambulance, which took a while to get there. Then I had to argue with the ambulance people, who were on the whole nicer. I had been saying all along that I was refusing all medical treatment (my legal right - I knew that much), but I still had to talk the ambulance people into letting me sign that waiver already, because of their procedures. Eventually they decided that the police could be witnesses that I was refusing, and that would cover them should I have a heart attack later that day or whatever. Half an hour. Fortunately it was a really nice day, and I was able to get my good mood back. I went to the rapids and watched some people surfing in them (in freezing cold water, too), and wondered why I was the one they thought was nuts! But more power to anyone brave enough to do that.

That was when I filed a complaint with the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. This is the case I'm not sure will succeed. I was initially refused, because it 'wasn't discrimination'. I later talked that person into seeing it as discrimination, and she passed it on, but the next person needed it to be explained all over again. I'm between people right now, and things are progressing slowly.

I realize it's hard to get people to see why the police's behaviour isn't ok, or at least it's hard to get official people to see why, so here's my best explanation:

1. Barefooters don't normally get stopped by the police. Autistic and other obviously disabled and mentally ill people sometimes do. So even though they say they're stopping me because I'm barefoot, they're actually stopping me because I look mentally ill or suspicious, plus I'm barefoot.

2. They seem to think that mentally ill people do not have the same rights other people have.

3. I've noticed that the police are much more likely to stop me when I'm in a really good mood. It's usually on warmer days, too, and they say that it's freezing and I'm going to hurt myself. They've been known to exaggerate the temperature, too, for effect. The law of attraction would suggest that I'm more likely to be stopped when I'm putting out negative energy, but it's actually the opposite. I'm more likely to be stopped when I'm in a good mood, putting out good energy. So I guess I must look really scary when I'm happy. Or maybe they're just putting an uppity cripple in her place. Not allowed to be happy when you're a crip, don't you know? At any rate, they can't say they're stopping me because I'm in distress, because they don't even notice me when I'm in distress.

In summary, the police detain me because I look deviant. They seem to think that if I'm mentally ill, I don't have the same right to go about my business like everyone else. They seem to think I don't need to be obviously dangerous to myself or others to be stopped, unlike everyone else (or at least everyone else who's rich and white and maybe female). That just being mentally ill is grounds for detaining or even arresting me. That's a double standard. And it's not ok.

There have been more stops since last December:

I was stopped outside the Villa Maria metro station as I was getting off the bus in January, and detained while they ran my ID. This was in response to a call.

I was stopped by two guys who may have been the same ones who stopped me when I was carrying the chair (I so too could have managed to get it all the way home!), because they recognized me and were asking me about 'that society' (Society for Barefoot Living). I was annoyed because they wanted ID, or at least my name and date of birth, for their report, even though they knew I was harmless and in no danger. They, on the other hand, drove backwards through an intersection on a one-way street to stop me! This was in response to a call, and I don't consider it discrimination because they didn't demand or run ID. Just annoying.

In mid-February I was stopped by two officers who stopped me because they happened to see me. I was trying to find out if I was actually being detained before handing over my ID (did I have a choice?), and that just made the lead officer annoyed. Yup, I was being detained. I wasn't free to go. That one was discrimination.

And the other day, I was stopped by two police officers who recognized me. They didn't get out of the car! They didn't ask for ID! They just said hello and chatted for a moment, telling me they'd had another call about me. I'm autistic and find chatting like that really tiring, but it sure beats actually being detained. I didn't even have to ask if I was free to go, it ended that quickly.

Two final notes:

  1. I seem to be breaking in some of them, even as they're breaking me in.
  2. The police seem to get more calls when I walk down an unfamiliar street than when I take my usual routes. About half the stops are in response to a call to 911. If you see me, please don't call 911. You are welcome to take a picture, discretely, and comment on it to your heart's content on the internet. But please, don't call 911. Thank you.

This is a work in progress, so I don't know how it will all work out.

NEXT: Ottawa public transit