What was intended to be an apology ceremony with a Heiltsuk Nation grandfather, granddaughter and the Vancouver police officers who arrested them at a Bank of Montreal branch in 2019 has been cancelled due to the constables’ lack of attendance.
Constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong failed to show up in Bella Bella Monday (Oct. 24) and have provided no explanation for their decisions, the Nation said.
The two were expected to deliver oral, in-person apologies at the Nation’s big house for their part in racially profiling Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter Tori-Anne. Wong and Tong handcuffed and arrested the grandfather and then-12-year-old granddaughter outside a Vancouver BMO in 2019 after bank employees incorrectly reported that Johnson’s Indigenous status card was fraudulent.
A March disciplinary decision against the two constables described them as using “unnecessary force.” The two were suspended, ordered to undertake de-escalation and cultural sensitivity training and told to apologize.
“I take it very personally.”
In the Heiltsuk culture, apologies must be done in person, Johnson explained Monday afternoon. Those who have caused harm are expected to acknowledge and express regret for their actions directly to those they hurt. Johnson said Wong and Tong sent him a letter apologizing, but that he made it clear to them that they should do so in person.
“It’s like they’re stepping on our culture. They’re not taking into account our way of life. I take it very personally.”
The absence of the constables means the ceremony cannot go ahead as planned. Instead, the Nation will host an uplifting ceremony for Johnson and his family.
Heiltsuk elected Chief Marilyn Slett said they view Wong and Tong’s non-attendance as a symptom of the larger systemic failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for systemic racism in the Vancouver Police Department.
“This was meant to mark the beginning of a new relationship between Heiltsuk Nation, (Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs), and the Vancouver Police Board working together to address systemic racism in policing,” Slett said in a statement.
“The constables’ lack of willingness to walk alongside us and respect our traditions is a continuation of the discrimination that police have shown toward Indigenous people in the past.”
Police board hopes assumptions aren’t made
VPD Chief Const. Adam Palmer, along with a delegation of department and police board members, will be in attendance Monday evening. The police board settled a human rights complaint with Johnson in September and has agreed to address issues of racism in the force. In the past, however, Palmer has said multiple times that he doesn’t believe systemic racism exists in Canadian policing.
In a statement Monday, the police board said they “hope assumptions are not made regarding the constables’ decision not to be at the ceremony. The board will not let this detract from the bigger picture, or our willingness to collaborate and implement change.”
In response, Slett said the statement doesn’t hold much weight to her.
“When you don’t take that responsibility and accountability to show up, you know, words can be quite empty.”
The Nation said it hasn’t received an explanation to as why the constables are not coming, but that earlier communication between it and the police board suggested the Vancouver Police Union was nervous about media being in attendance.
Heiltsuk chief questions police expansion
Slett said the entire situation is making her question Mayor-elect Ken Sim’s campaign promise to add 100 more police officers to the Vancouver police force.
“Why expand an institution that cannot or will not advance justice and reconciliation, or take responsibility for its actions?” Slett said.
Black Press Media has reached out to the Vancouver Police Board and Sims for comment.