The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is intervening in a human rights complaint launched against the Vancouver Police Department by a Heiltsuk First Nation man who, along with his granddaughter Torianne, was handcuffed after bank staff called police on them.
Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter went at a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver on Dec. 20, 2019, to open a bank account for Torianne.
Bank staff called 911 on the duo, citing concerns over fraud linked to transactions in Johnson’s account and their use of Indian Status Cards as identification.
According to complaint documents, one of those recent transactions included a large deposit resulting from a legal settlement between Heiltsuk First Nation and Canada, and a recent small transfer to a family member.
Police officers arrived, arrested Johnson and his granddaughter and handcuffed them for an hour before letting them go.
On Wednesday (June 16), lawyer Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said that the UBCIC’s intervention represented the full support of a large group of First Nations leaders in B.C.
“Human rights cases come forward because people have to stand up to defend their rights. Maxwell is standing to defend his rights,” Turpel-Lafond said.
“These kinds of police acts where people are handcuffed and humiliated and mistreated… these are very serious issues that will not be tolerated.”
Turpel-Lafond served for two terms as B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, an independent position reporting to the Legislative Assembly.
Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett said that her Nation was looking to raise awareness of the racism Indigenous people still face every day, even when simply going about their regular lives. Slett announced the launch of the Strong as Cedar campaign, which seeks to “empower Indigenous people, and communities of colour, to fight racism in Canada by sharing and gathering stories, and highlighting solutions for change.”
The campaign website invites BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of colour) to share their experiences of racism by using the hashtag #StrongAsCedar on social media.
“It’s really about breaking the cycle of discrimination. These stories cannot keep happening over and over again,” Slett said.
During the press conference, the UBCIC released a 45-minute video of Johnson and his granddaughter being handcuffed. Johnson, who was able to view the video earlier with his lawyers, said it was still difficult to see his granddaughter, who was 12 at the time, in such distress.
“The first time we saw… it was very very hard to see. I had to keep calm and keep a good head on my shoulders for my granddaughter, she was crying. That one of the hardest things to see,” Johnson said. He has rebuffed an apology offered by BMO, and said an Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner investigation did not go far enough.
Turpel-Lafond said there were countless things wrong with the situation.
“Why is it necessary to even be in handcuffs?” she asked, noting that a newly released video makes it clear that Johnson was not resisting. The Vancouver police have denied that racism was involved in the incident, saying that it was simply a mistake.
“To say that racism is not involved strains credibility at the deepest level,” Turpel-Lafond said, saying that the Vancouver police’s defence of being “colourblind” did not hold up.
“Indigenous people are treated differently by police.”
Turpel-Lafond said that while an apology by Vancouver police would be a good place to start, there needs to be more.
“Apologies need to be there, they need to be more than words, they need to be uniquivable,” she said. “This has not been addressed.”
Johnson said that there needs to be a stronger effort by both Vancouver police and BMO staff to educate themselves on First Nations issues, including about Status Cards. Johnson said there is no reason why a government-issued identification like a Status Card should not be accepted.
UBCIC Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said that the actions taken by police have not been enough.
“We’re sick and tired of meaningless apologies that are made in a very high profile political fashion,” Phillip said.
“Absolutely no opportunity for redress, for compensation or any measures to make it right. That is what an apology constitutes – making it right.”
Stewart said that police officers that perpetrate these incidents should lose their pensions and suffer further consequences, saying that is the only way to “see a drop in these racist attitudes.
“There should never be 12 year old girls in handcuffs… that’s so disgusting.”