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Heiltsuk man, granddaughter reach settlement after Vancouver police handcuffing

Torianne: ‘What happened to me and my grandfather traumatized me’

A Heiltsuk Nation grandfather and his granddaughter have reached a multi-pronged settlement with the Vancouver Police Board after the pair was mistakenly suspected of fraud and handcuffed by officers in 2019 outside a Bank of Montreal branch in downtown Vancouver.

The settlement includes undisclosed damages paid to Maxwell Johnson and Torianne and an admission from the police board that the two arresting officers discriminated against the pair because of their Indigenous identity.

The constables themselves have apologized in a letter to Johnson and his granddaughter and were sent an invitation to attend an “apology ceremony” Oct. 24 in Bella Bella, which will be led by the police board.

Details of the settlement were announced Wednesday at a downtown news conference, where Johnson’s son Morgan was also present, along with Heiltsuk Nation Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett and other members of the nation.

“I keep seeing my granddaughter standing on that street crying while she's being handcuffed,” said Johnson, noting he can’t get the image out of his head. “I don't think any parent or grandparents would ever see that in their lifetime. She must have been about 20 to 30 feet away from me and all I could do was just stand and not do nothing.”

'Recklessy using unnecessary force'

Johnson was overcome with emotion as he recounted the events of Dec. 20, 2019, which began with him attempting to open a joint account at the Burrard Street branch of BMO with his granddaughter. Both provided their Indian status cards to the bank employee. Johnson had recently deposited $30,000 in an existing account.

The branch manager didn’t believe the pair’s purpose at the bank, suspected they were attempting to commit fraud and contacted police. Johnson and his granddaughter were led outside by two constables and handcuffed on a sidewalk.

A retired judge tasked with reviewing the case, which made headlines nationally and internationally, ruled in April that the officers committed misconduct by “recklessly using unnecessary force” in arresting the pair.

Torianne, who was 12 at the time of the incident and is now 15, told reporters from a lectern inside a room at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue on West Hastings Street — a short walk from the BMO branch — that she was still healing from the treatment by the bank employees and the police.

She, too, fought back tears.

“We were on a family trip in Vancouver, and we were supposed to be making good memories together,” she said. “Instead, what happened to me and my grandfather traumatized me.”

From a young age, she continued, she has learned that many people treat Indigenous people differently “because of what we look like,” adding that “we don’t go to places or do things that other kids might be doing because we're scared of how we might be treated. That feeling of being unwelcomed can stay with us our whole lives.”

At the same time, she said it was important for Indigenous kids to speak out and fight for justice when they face discrimination.

“I hope that my grandfather and I helped you feel like you can speak up and be heard when you experience injustice,” she said as Johnson and Heiltsuk councillor Louisa Housty Jones stood by her side.

“Everyone deserves to be treated equally and with respect. I'm glad that we have the settlement with the Vancouver police now so we can continue to move on from what happened.”

'Path-breaking settlement'

Lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who acted on behalf of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs in the case, called the settlement historic and “path-breaking,” not only for justice won by Johnson and his family but for addressing systemic and structural racism in Vancouver.

“The Union of BC Indian Chiefs is incredibly proud of [Johnson and Torianne] for standing up for their human rights and the rights of all First Nations people in Vancouver and, frankly, in British Columbia and Canada,” said Turpel-Lafond, who went on to provide more details of the settlement, which include:

• $100,000 goes to the Heiltsuk Nation’s restorative justice department to fund one year of community programming for at-risk women, including young women who suffer anxiety from traumatic incidents.

• The nation, police board and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs will develop plans to improve police training on anti-Indigenous racism, including “cultural humility” and competency education. Interactions related to Indigenous status cards will be addressed.

• The trio of agencies will also ensure protocols related to investigations and handcuffing procedures are non-discriminatory towards Indigenous peoples.

• The police board will create an oversight committee that includes members of the nation and chiefs’ organization to oversee implementation of the settlement.

• The police board will create a position for an officer who will review complaints related to Indigenous peoples and make recommendations to ensure police policy is not racist to Indigenous peoples.

• The police board will post an annual report on its website on the number and nature of complaints related to treatment of Indigenous peoples and how they were addressed.

• The BC Human Rights commissioner will review and publicly report on “systemic remedies initiatives” under the settlement.

• A total of $20,000 will go to the Union of BC Indian Chiefs to partially reimburse costs related to prepare expert evidence as an intervenor in the case, which concluded after the settlement was reached.

'More meaningful relationship with Indigenous communities'

The police board included a statement in a news release issued by the Heiltsuk Nation, which said it recognized the significance of the settlement, adding that it was the board’s “sincere goal to create a more meaningful relationship with Indigenous communities, and we believe the terms of this settlement will go a long way in furthering this goal.”

The settlement was in response to a complaint made by Johnson and Torianne to the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The complaint has now concluded because of the settlement reached among all involved in the case.

The settlement is separate from an earlier one announced in May with BMO, which included money and an apology, along with training for BMO staff on Indigenous culture and installing an art piece made by Johnson in the branch on Burrard Street, with copies to be displayed in other B.C. branches where Heiltsuk members have accounts.

Johnson, meanwhile, said more people now recognize him on the street because of the media attention the case has attracted. It’s attention he said he’s still getting used to but appreciates the comments.

“Every time somebody comes up to me, I kind of step back a bit, but they always ask how my granddaughter is doing,” he said. “And they're saying thank you for what we're doing, not only for our people, but other people of colour.”