Indigenous apology ceremony cancelled after no-show by arresting police officers

Indigenous apology ceremony cancelled after no-show by arresting police officers
Maxwell Johnson, left, an Indigenous man from the Heiltsuk Nation, walks through the ceremonial area of the Big House in Bella Bella, B.C., Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022, in preparation for the Vancouver Police Board's formal apology and a feast. Maxwell and his then-12-year-old granddaughter, Tori-Anne, were handcuffed outside a bank in Vancouver in December 2019 when they were wrongly suspected of using fake Indian status cards.

A British Columbia First Nation has cancelled an apology ceremony saying it is deeply disappointed that the Vancouver police officers who wrongly arrested two of their members failed to show up.

Instead, there will be an “uplifting” ceremony for Maxwell Johnson and his family in the Heiltsuk Nation’s community of Bella Bella, on B.C.’s central coast, the nation says in a statement.

Johnson was arrested alongside his 12-year-old granddaughter in December 2019 after a bank employee phoned police, mistakenly suspecting they were using fake status cards to open a bank account.

Both were placed in handcuffs while standing on the sidewalk in front of the bank.

The apology ceremony was part of a settlement agreement between Johnson and the Vancouver Police Board.

A statement from the nation says it views the constables’ decisions not to attend “as a symptom of the larger systemic failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for systemic racism in the Vancouver Police Department.”

Elected Chief Marilyn Slett says in the statement the ceremony was meant to mark the start of a new relationship between the Heiltsuk, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Vancouver Police Board to work together to address systemic racism in policing.

“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,” she says.

The nation says the absence of constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong is another hurtful chapter in Johnson’s long journey to address the discrimination he and his granddaughter faced.

The apology ceremony is part of a settlement agreement reached between Johnson and the police board. It also included an undisclosed financial award to Johnson and the development of a plan to improve police training on anti-Indigenous racism and “cultural humility.”

A statement from the Vancouver Police Board says it is the respondent in the human rights case launched by Johnson, not the individual constables.

It says members of the board and the Vancouver Police Department who will be in attendance Monday represent its commitment to stand together with the First Nation against discrimination.

“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 statement says.

The settlement agreement released last month between the board and Johnson says the board admits that the conduct of the two constables contravened the B.C. Human Rights Code “by discriminating against the complainants because of their Indigenous identity, race and ancestry.”

The agreement says it expected the officers to attend the ceremony.

“The board shall exercise best efforts to ensure constables Wong and Tong attend the ceremony as part of the board’s delegation, to make an in-person apology at the ceremony.”

The Heiltsuk statement says because the nation’s protocols don’t allow for people to stand in place of others, a traditional apology ceremony can’t be carried out.

“Recognizing this newly placed barrier in their healing journey, Heiltsuk Leadership is taking the opportunity (Monday) to hold an uplifting ceremony and feast for the Johnson family in place of the apology that should have been heard from the constables and the Vancouver Police Board.”

The settlement also included a $100,000 payment to the Heiltsuk Tribal Council’s Restorative Justice Department to cover one year of community programming for at risk youth, including young women who suffer from anxiety due to trauma.

Johnson’s granddaughter, Tori-Anne, told a news conference last month that she hoped the story of her arrest would encourage more people to stand up against injustice and discrimination.

The nation says the ceremony is a prerequisite for true reconciliation and is intended to be an uplifting experience for everyone.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 24, 2022. 

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian PressDirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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