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Heiltsuk Nation man, granddaughter continue to seek in-person apology from Vancouver constables over BMO incident

Maxwell Johnson: ‘There is a hole in me right now, as my family, my people, and my culture are being disrespected and cast aside.’
Security video of the arrest of Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter on Dec. 20, 2019 outside the BMO branch on Burrard Street.

The Heiltsuk Nation man who was mistakenly handcuffed along with his granddaughter outside a Vancouver BMO branch in 2019 has applied under the Police Act for reconsideration of the disciplinary measures imposed on the two constables.

The Nation issued a news release Wednesday saying Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, who was 12 at the time of the incident, are taking such action because the constables failed to attend an Oct. 24, 2022 apology ceremony in Bella Bella.

“Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter say that the constables’ refusal to respect Heiltsuk culture and attend the ceremony is evidence that the constables will not agree to a culturally appropriate apology without being ordered to on reconsideration,” the release said. 

Under the Police Act, anyone can apply for reconsideration on new evidence.

Johnson and his granddaughter request the Police Complaint Commissioner reconsider the discipline decision with a view to require the constables attend an apology ceremony. The constables — Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong — told the retired judge who disciplined them that they were willing to apologize in person.

“When the constables told the retired judge that they would apologize and wrote to us to say they wanted to meet in person, I felt we were finally going to achieve justice and closure,” Johnson said in the release.

“Unfortunately, it has become clear that they don’t want to make the substance of a meaningful apology. There is a hole in me right now, as my family, my people, and my culture are being disrespected and cast aside. If the constables don’t come to Bella Bella and apologize in the proper way, the hole in me, and in our community, will remain.” 

Maxwell Johnson, his granddaughter Torianne and Louisa Housty Jones participated in a news conference in September 2022 to announce details of a settlement reached with the Vancouver Police Board. Photo Mike Howell

'Best efforts for the officers to attend'

On the day of the ceremony, a spokesperson for the Vancouver police board said “we are unable to speak to why the officers are not in attendance.

In keeping with the terms of the settlement, we made our best efforts for the officers to attend,” said police board vice-chairperson and spokesperson Faye Wightman, in an email to Glacier Media.

Also on that day, a source with knowledge of the agreement said the Heiltsuk Nation was told the officers would attend, but backed out when they learned media was invited to the event.

Efforts were made by the nation to look at ways to modify the ceremony to protect privacy, but the nation never heard back from the officers, the source said.

“There was a lot of back and forth with lawyers right up to the last minute and even back channel efforts to get them [to Bella Bella] as late as [Sunday] night,” the source said at the time.

Mistakenly handcuffed, detained

The case dates back to Dec. 20, 2019 when Johnson visited the BMO branch at 595 Burrard St. He had an existing account at the bank and was with his granddaughter to open a joint chequing account. Johnson had recently deposited $30,000 in the account after receiving a settlement.

The branch manager didn’t believe the pair's purpose at the bank, suspected they were attempting to commit fraud and contacted police. Johnson and his granddaughter were led outside by the constables and handcuffed on a sidewalk.

In September 2022, the Heiltsuk Nation announced that Johnson and his granddaughter reached a multi-pronged settlement with the police board.

The settlement includes undisclosed damages paid to Johnson and his granddaughter and an admission from the police board that the two arresting officers discriminated against the pair because of their Indigenous identity.

The constables themselves have apologized in a letter to Johnson and his granddaughter and were sent an invitation to attend the apology ceremony in Bella Bella, which was attended by Police Chief Adam Palmer, deputy police chiefs and members of the police board.

'Systemic racism'

Wednesday’s release said that an apology ceremony attended by the constables “would be a positive, uplifting and healing experience for everyone involved. It would be reconciliation in action.”

“The Vancouver Police Board is supposed to be working with us to address systemic racism, but the ongoing failure of their constables to respect Heiltsuk legal traditions and culture, and to apologize in an appropriate way, is systemic racism in action,” said Marilyn Slett, elected Chief of the Heiltsuk Nation, in the release.

“There has been an opportunity for the Board and the constables to demonstrate their support and commitment to anti-racism, reconciliation, and UNDRIP, but they haven’t done it. The Nation stands behind Max and his granddaughter and hopes the Police Complaint Commissioner will do the right thing.”

The Vancouver Police Department and police board did not immediately respond to emails and calls from Glacier Media. The BMO incident was the subject of a recent in-camera meeting with the department and board.

When asked about the item on the Nov. 23 agenda, Police Chief Adam Palmer said there was no update to publicly report.