Tension reached a high point during a trauma-healing ceremony when a hereditary chief walked across a sand-covered floor and returned the gift he had received from Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer.
Police participation in the ceremony in Bella Bella, on B.C.’s remote central coast, was one of several conditions of settlement in a human rights complaint against the Vancouver Police Board by Maxwell Johnson who was wrongly arrested and handcuffed in 2019 with his then 12-year-old granddaughter.
But the absence at Monday’s ceremony of the two constables who arrested the pair after they tried to open a bank account set off a fresh round of accusations of systemic racism against Vancouver’s police department that threatens to stall the process of reconciliation.
“My question is, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Hereditary Chief Frank Brown said during Monday night’s five-hour ceremony at the Heiltsuk First Nation’s Big House.
“That’s my question to you,” Brown said indicating to members of the Vancouver Police Board and Chief Palmer. “In all due respect I can’t accept this gift.”
Applause erupted as Brown handed a gift bag back to Palmer.
Two chairs bearing the names of Vancouver officers Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong sat empty among the seated police delegation of about 20 members.
The board said in a news release on Monday that the human rights complaint launched by Johnson was against the board, not the individual officers.
That distinction did not placate those at the ceremony.
“We need to do better,” said Brown. “We have an opportunity before us to do better. The province, First Nations, Indigenous people, the country and the world is watching us. How Canada and how a city treats its Indigenous people is going to be a powerful symbol, a reflection on what we profess to be.”
A dozen hereditary chiefs, several community leaders and elected Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett all spoke during the ceremony, each expressing disappointment at the failure of the two officers to attend the gathering.
Several chiefs focused on comments made last summer by Palmer, a former president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, that systemic racism in policing in Canada does not exist.
They cited Johnson’s case as an example of racism, while some chiefs also related their own troubling encounters with police.
“The light was shone on the ugly face of racism in Vancouver by the Vancouver city police,” Brown said. “To say racism doesn’t exist is not true.”
Palmer did not speak during the ceremony but at its conclusion was seen speaking with Johnson and at one point the pair shook hands.
Johnson, whose knees visibly shook at times during the ceremony, said the absence of the two officers means he, his family and his community cannot yet experience full healing from the trauma suffered.
He said he spoke directly to the police board and asked them to ask the two officers to come to Bella Bella and complete the healing circle.
“If you could give them that message,” Johnson said. “It’s all about forgiveness for us. I really, really did wish they could come so we could all have closure.”
Johnson held up the artworks he planned to give as gifts during the ceremony but said he must wait until the officers come to his community to complete the healing process.
The Heiltsuk First Nation replaced the apology event with an “uplifting ceremony” for Johnson and his family when it became clear the two arresting officers had failed to show up.
The settlement agreement released last month between Johnson and the Vancouver Police Board, included the board’s admission 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.”
It included an undisclosed financial award for Johnson and the development of a plan to improve police training on anti-Indigenous racism and “cultural humility.”
The settlement also involved 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.
B.C. human rights commissioner Kasari Govender, who attended the Bella Bella ceremony, said her office will monitor police training on anti-Indigenous racism initiatives over the next two years.
“My role as human rights commissioner in this agreement is to act as an independent auditor on the systemic components of the agreement,” she said in an interview.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2022.