An Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were wrongfully arrested outside a B.C. bank in 2019 have reached a settlement with the Vancouver Police Department.
Maxwell Johnson, who is from the Heiltsuk Nation, was trying to open an account for his then 12-year-old granddaughter Tori-Anne at a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver when employees took issue with his Indian Status card and wrongly reported a fraud in process to police. Officers responded and handcuffed and detained the two, despite their full compliance.
Backed by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), Maxwell filed human rights complaints against VPD and BMO the following year. The latter was settled in May 2022, but it wasn’t until Wednesday (Sept. 28) that Maxwell announced a settlement had also been reached with the police department.
“It is a clear vindication and acknowledgement for Maxwell and Tori-Anne that there was racism and discrimination,” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, legal council for UBCIC, said in a media briefing.
Vancouver police commit to overhauling officer training
The settlement includes damages for Johnson and his family as well as $100,000 to go to the Heiltsuk Gvi’las Restorative Justice Program for female youth. It also dictates a two-year commitment between Heiltsuk Nation, UBCIC and the Vancouver Police Board to develop a plan to address discrimination in policing.
This, Turpel-Lafond said, will include an overhaul of police training on anti-Indigenous racism and how to interact with First Nations people when status cards are involved, among other things. The Vancouver Police Board has also committed to publishing an annual report on the number of complaints VPD receives on the treatment of Indigenous people, and creating a new anti-Indigenous racism officer position.
An oversight committee will be created to ensure the implementation of these steps, and the B.C. Human Rights Commissioner will be invited to review VPD’s progress after two years.
The police department will also attend an apology ceremony in Johnson and Tori-Anne’s home community of Bella Bella next month. The two officers who arrested the grandfather and granddaughter have been invited, but Johnson said Wednesday he doesn’t yet know if they will attend.
Constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong were suspended for several days and ordered to take Indigenous cultural sensitivity and de-escalation training back in March. In a disciplinary decision, retired judge Brian Neal found the two officers had acted “recklessly” and with “unnecessary force.”
‘That feeling of being unwelcome can stay with us our whole lives.’
Johnson and Tori-Anne said they are happy with the outcome, but emphasized that the fear and anxiety the wrongful arrest caused them, their family and their community remains.
“One of the things I keep seeing is my granddaughter standing on that street crying while she’s being handcuffed. I’ll never, ever get that image out of my head,” Johnson said, choking up.
Now 15 years old, Tori-Anne said she remains traumatized. And, she added, the discrimination she faced that day is something all First Nations people are familiar with.
“From when we’re kids, we understand that people treat us differently because of what we look like. That feeling of being unwelcome can stay with us our whole lives.”
She said she hopes what her and her grandfather have done helps other kids to stay strong and inspires others to speak up against racism.