VANCOUVER – The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has launched an effort to gain intervener status in a human rights case involving an Indigenous man and his granddaughter over their treatment by Vancouver police while they tried to open a bank account.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a former judge who represents the union, said the organization wants to have a voice in Maxwell Johnson’s case to highlight what it alleges is a history of systemic racism against Indigenous people by Vancouver’s police force.
“These kinds of police acts where people are handcuffed and humiliated and mistreated and their rights are not respected, these are very serious issues that will not be tolerated,” she said during a news conference Wednesday.
“The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs will insist anti-Indigenous racism is exposed and eradicated in Vancouver.”
Johnson, who is from the Heiltsuk Nation on B.C.’s central coast, said both he and his 12-year-old granddaughter were detained in December 2019 by Vancouver officers when they tried to open an account at the Bank of Montreal using their Indigenous status cards.
His complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal alleges that the bank called 911 over an identification issue because they are Indigenous, while it accuses the police of racial profiling that led to their detention and the use of handcuffs.
“This has got to be brought forward, not only for myself but for my family and other people of colour and First Nations,” Johnson said during the news conference.
The police experience has led to his son and granddaughter suffering mental health issues following the detainment, he said.
The Heiltsuk Nation released footage of the detainment on Wednesday, showing Johnson and his granddaughter being handcuffed by police on a busy city sidewalk as pedestrians passed by.
“Even today when I see it, it’s very hard to see. It’ll be with us for a while yet,” Johnson said.
The Vancouver Police Department said in a statement that it couldn’t comment on the case as the officers’ actions are being investigated by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
“We understand that the investigation and decision have been submitted to the OPCC for their final review,” said Const. Tania Visintin.
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner confirmed Wednesday the investigation into the two officers had ended, saying it was now reviewing the decision handed down by Victoria Chief Const. Del Manak.
It said in an email reply that it expects to decide whether to have that decision reviewed by an independent, retired judge by June 21, 2021.
In a statement after the rights case was launched last year, the department issued a statement saying the circumstances were “regrettable” and understandably traumatic for Johnson and his family.
The Heiltsuk Nation provided the Vancouver Police Board’s response to Johnson’s complaint that had been filed with the tribunal saying its officer followed correct police procedure.
“The respondent submits that the officers’ conduct with respect to the complainants on December 20, 2019, was appropriate and measured in the circumstances and not discriminatory,” the statement says.
The board is calling for the complaint to be dismissed.
The ordeal prompted an apology from the bank, which then launched an Indigenous advisory council and conducted cultural training for staff.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says Johnson’s experience is an example of racism that Indigenous people and people of colour face every day from police.
Nick Wells, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2021.