A long-awaited apology ceremony for an Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were unfairly handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account in Vancouver will not go ahead as planned Monday after the two arresting officers decided not to attend.
The ceremony and feast in Bella Bella, B.C., is part of a human rights settlement between Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, who were detained by two Vancouver police officers on a busy street outside a Bank of Montreal branch nearly three years ago.
Johnson said the officers’ decision to miss the event left him at a loss.
“It’s very disheartening to get the news that two officers can’t be here without any explanation, and we can’t go full circle now with our healing because they chose not to show up,” Johnson told reporters from Gwakwa’aus Hailzakw. or the House of Heiltsuk.
“It’s as if they are trampling our culture.” They don’t consider our way of life… I take that very personally.”
CBC News confirmed earlier Monday that Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers Mitchell Tong and Cannon Wong will be absent from the formal apology, which was scheduled to take place Monday night at the nation’s great house.
“We cannot say why the police officers are not present.” In accordance with the terms of the settlement, we have made every effort to have officers attend,” the Vancouver Police Board said in a statement.
WATCH | Maxwell Johnson says he takes the absence of police “very personally”:
The Heiltsuk protocol does not allow substitutions
In light of the officers’ decision not to attend, the nation said the apology ceremony could not go ahead as planned and would be turned into an “uplifting ceremony” for Johnson and his family.
“Because the Heilzuk protocols do not allow people to stand in for others, the traditional apology ceremony cannot take place unless those who have caused the harm are themselves present,” the nation said in a statement.
An overview of the settlement provided by the Nation said the board agreed to “hold an apology ceremony at Bella Bella and make every effort to ensure that the officers who arrested Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter attend the event.”
Citing its “best efforts,” the board’s statement on Monday said it “meets the requirements of the human rights treaty in both the specifics and the spirit of the treaty — with a commitment to authentic healing and reconciliation.”
The board and its officers were prepared to personally apologize for discriminating against Johnson and his granddaughter because of their Indigenous identity, race and ancestry.
Other members of the police delegation were due to arrive by charter flight on Monday morning.
Heilzuck leaders who received the passenger list for the plane that arrived in the remote village, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) northwest of Vancouver, said Sunday they were stunned to see the names of the officers missing.
The passenger list included the names of several senior VPD officials, including Chief Const. Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow.
“Those of the board and the VPD in attendance today represent our commitment as an organization to show that we are in community with the Heiltsuk Nation, that we stand together against discrimination, and that we work together toward our common goal of systemic change,” the police board said. .
‘Symptom of … system failure’
The story of the arrests has become “a symbol of the fight against systemic racism,” says Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slette.
But this latest development has Heiltsuk leaders questioning when their fight will end.
A statement released by the Nation on Monday said the officers’ no-show was “symptom of a larger systemic failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for systemic racism in the Vancouver Police Department.”
The nation has been planning the ceremony since March. Community leaders said Wong and Tong had received repeated invitations — including publicly from Johnson — and said their spots would be open until the last minute.
“We don’t know why.” [they aren’t here]. “We don’t know what made them not come here today,” said Heilzuck Chief-Elect Marilyn Slett.
“This behavior shows a further lack of respect, which is disheartening… [and] disappointing considering police officers should be delving into cultural competency training.”
The police board did not say why the officers decided not to attend.
“We hope that no assumptions were made regarding the decision of the police officers not to be at the ceremony.” The board will not allow this to detract from the bigger picture or our willingness to collaborate and implement change,” the statement said.
VPD initially said the incident was not racist
On Dec. 20 of that year, a BMO branch manager called 911 because she thought Johnson and his granddaughter were presenting fake IDs, according to phone transcripts.
Wong and Tong arrived on the scene and handcuffed Johnson and his granddaughter outside the bank. Both were released within an hour.
WATCH | Maxwell Johnson’s granddaughter speaks after the settlement:
This spring, the two arresting officers were suspended and ordered to apologize for their “serious, culpable” misconduct.
Brian Neal, a retired provincial court judge appointed to the case by the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, found the officers had committed two counts of abuse of authority by “negligently arresting the complainants and using unnecessary force by handcuffing them”.
The VPD did not respond to requests made Thursday, Sunday or Monday for information about the police board members and officers scheduled to go to Bella Bella.