What does a First Nation do when two Vancouver police constables, who were expected to appear at a formal apology ceremony for discrimination, are suddenly no-shows?
If it’s the Heiltsuk Nation, they continue with the long-planned feast – but change it from an “apology” ceremony to an “uplifting” ceremony.
The Oct. 24 feast in Bella Bella was intended to help everyone involved heal after police handcuffed Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter Torianne on a busy Vancouver street in December, 2019.
When Johnson took his granddaughter to the bank to open an account for her, bank employees doubted their indigenous identify documents, and called police.
The constables, Mitchel Tong and Canon Wong, responded to a “fraud call” from staff at the Bank of Montreal, according to a police report from the time.
The apology ceremony, nearly three years later, was intended to end a saga that involved human rights complaints, multiple investigations, settlements by the bank, and a brief suspension of the constables for abuse of authority as well as their written apologies, ordered in June by B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
“Two vulnerable persons of Indigenous heritage were exposed to unnecessary trauma and fear, and left with a serious perception of unfairness in their treatment at the hands of police,” said police complaint commissioner Clayton Pecknold.
Tong and Wong were invited to make a further apology at the formal ceremony in Bella Bella, but didn’t show up with senior officials from Vancouver police, who flew in on Monday.
The Nation rejected the apology, and gifts offered to the nation from police authorities, because of the absence of the two officers who handcuffed Johnson and his granddaughter.
“Until rank and file officers who engage with the public on the streets every day also take it upon themselves to uphold the values of reconciliation, there cannot truly be meaningful systemic change. This is why it was so important that the Constables who engaged directly with Max and Torianne be here tonight to personally take responsibility for their actions,” said Marilyn Slett, Elected Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation, as the ceremony opened.
The apology ceremony, along with a feast funded by the Bank of Montreal, was the final part of a settlement earlier this fall that included an admission of discrimination by the police board based on Indigenous identity, damages, and $100,000 for Heiltsuk restorative justice programs.
Under the settlement the Vancouver police board, Heiltsuk and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs agreed to work together on a list of goals including police training on anti-Indigenous racism, an annual police board report on complaints related to Indigenous persons, and create a position for an anti-Indigenous-racism officer.
But without a formal apology at the ceremony, from the two constables who handcuffed him, “we can’t go full circle,” said Maxwell Johnson on Monday, after confirming the two officers would not attend.
“They have to be here for the ceremony. They can’t have anyone to stand in for them, it’s the way we do things here. It’s our coastal way.”
Wong and Tong “were unable to attend for personal reasons,” the Vancouver Police Union said in a statement emailed to West Coast Now.
“Constables Wong and Tong have apologized in person to Maxwell Johnson and his family, in addition to sending personal letters,” said the statement by union president Ralph Kaisers. “VPU members will continue to participate in ongoing training to ensure best practices are followed regarding cultural sensitivities.”