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VPD officers who handcuffed Heiltsuk man, granddaughter won’t attend ‘apology ceremony’ in Bella Bella

Vancouver Police Board: ‘We are unable to speak to why the officers are not in attendance’
Security video of the arrest of Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter on Dec. 20, 2019 outside the BMO branch on Burrard Street.

Two Vancouver police officers who handcuffed a Heiltsuk Nation man and his granddaughter outside a Bank of Montreal branch in December 2019 will not attend an “apology ceremony” in Bella Bella Monday night.

The Vancouver Police Board confirmed Monday (Oct. 24) that the constables will not join a delegation of board members and Police Chief Adam Palmer on the trip to the nation’s homeland, where a ceremony is planned to begin at 5 p.m.

“We are unable to speak to why the officers are not in attendance,” said Faye Wightman, the police board’s vice-chairperson and spokesperson, in an emailed statement Monday morning. “In keeping with the terms of the settlement, we made our best efforts for the officers to attend.”

Last month, the Heiltsuk Nation announced that Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter reached a multi-pronged settlement with the police board after the pair was mistakenly suspected of fraud and handcuffed by officers outside a BMO branch on Burrard Street.

The settlement includes undisclosed damages paid to 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 Monday’s apology ceremony in Bella Bella, which will be led by the police board.

Redacted copy of agreement

A redacted copy of the agreement doesn't specifically state that constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong must attend the ceremony.

Instead, it says: "The board shall exercise best efforts to ensure that constables Wong and Tong attend at the ceremony as part of the board's delegation to make an in-person apology at the ceremony."

A source with knowledge of the agreement said the Heiltsuk Nation was told the officers would attend, but backed out when they learned media was invited to the event. Efforts were made by the nation to look at ways to modify the ceremony to protect privacy, but the nation never heard back from the officers, the source said.

"There was a lot of back and forth with lawyers right up to the last minute and even back channel efforts to get them [to Bella Bella] as late as [Sunday] night," the source said.

Maxwell Johnson, his granddaughter Torianne and Louisa Housty Jones of the Heiltsuk Nation at a news conference last month to announce a settlement with the Vancouver Police Board. Photo Mike Howell

'First step in healing journey'

Johnson and his granddaughter had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal, which led to the settlement with the board. Wightman said the board was the respondent in the human rights complaint, not the two constables. 

“It is important not to confuse the key elements of the settlement — and the difference between the holistic process of reconciliation on a systemic scale through the Human Rights Tribunal settlement, versus the independent discipline process involving the officers,” she said.

“The board is meeting the terms as defined in the Human Rights settlement in both the specifics and in the spirit of the agreement – with a commitment to authentic healing and reconciliation.”

Wightman said the police board sees Monday's ceremony as “the first step in the healing journey” involving the board, Johnson, his granddaughter and the Heiltsuk Nation. 

“It is an opportunity for the board to listen to the perspectives of Maxwell Johnson and the Heiltsuk Nation,” she said. “We are hosting this ceremony to assume accountability as a board, and to sit in the truth of what has happened.”

Faye Wightman, vice-chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board. Photo Mike Howell

'In the spirit of truth and reconciliation'

Wightman said the delegation “represents our commitment as an organization to show up to be in community with the Heiltsuk Nation, to stand together against discrimination and to collaborate on our common goal of systemic change.”

She said the board and police department “care deeply about creating a collaborative way forward and building relationships that will support healing and a deeper understanding of the issues faced by Indigenous communities.”

“Our commitment remains to building a relationship with the Heiltsuk Nation and other First Nations communities in the spirit of truth and reconciliation,” Wightman said.

“We hope assumptions are not made regarding the constables’ decision not to be at the ceremony. The board will not let this detract from the bigger picture, or our willingness to collaborate and implement change.”

The Heiltsuk Nation, meanwhile, posted a statement on its website Sunday regarding concerns about the constables possibly not attending the ceremony. The statement was posted after the nation learned via a passenger list for a chartered plan that the police board delegation didn’t include the officers.

“The Heiltsuk Nation and Maxwell Johnson would view the constables’ potential non-attendance as a symptom of the larger systemic failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for systemic racism in policing,” said the statement, which also provided the officers' surnames.

'Extremely hurtful to me and my family'

The case dates back to Dec. 20, 2019 when Johnson visited the BMO branch at 595 Burrard St. He had an existing account at the bank and was with his granddaughter to open a joint chequing account. Johnson had recently deposited $30,000 in the account after receiving a settlement.

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 the constables and handcuffed on a sidewalk.

Johnson is quoted in Sunday's statement from the Heiltsuk Nation, saying “it will be extremely hurtful to me and my family if the VPD constables do not attend our ceremony tomorrow. We were looking forward to coming full circle with them and putting this behind us.

Johnson added: “If they don’t attend, a bigger question is why they do not feel compelled to. What does that say about the culture they are working in? It is in our culture to forgive, and it is also in our culture to take responsibility. In the absence of a full apology, the weight of that traumatic incident will remain on me and my family, and we will need to find new strength to bear it as we move forward.”

The ceremony, if it takes place, is expected to be livestreamed on the Heiltsuk Nation's Facebook page.

Update: Heiltsuk Nation issued news release Monday afternoon to say an "uplifting ceremony" for Johnson and his granddaughter will be held instead tonight. Heiltsuk elected chief Marilyn Slett said the nation was extremely disappointed by the officers' decision not to attend. "The constables lack of willingness to walk alongside us and respect our traditions is a continuation of the discrimination that police have shown toward Indigenous people in the past," Slett said.

Note: This article was updated with more information since first posted.

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