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VPD, Heiltsuk Nation relationship needs repair: B.C. human rights head

Rights adovcate also calls for new apology ceremony for cops who wrongfully arrested Heiltsuk family
Heiltsuk First Nation man Maxwell Johnson and elected Chief Marilyn Slett at a news conference on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. (Jane Skrypnek/Black Press Media)

B.C.’s human rights commissioner says the Heiltsuk Nation and Vancouver Police Board (VPB) have a real opportunity to address racism in policing if they can find a way to work together better.

Kasari Govender released an interim report on the groups’ progress on Wednesday (March 6). She was tasked with monitoring their work as one of the conditions of a 2022 human rights settlement between VPB and a Heiltsuk grandfather and granddaughter who were wrongfully arrested outside a Vancouver bank.

Bank of Montreal employees called 911 on Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter in 2019 after incorrectly reporting that Johnson’s Indigenous status card was fraudulent.

A disciplinary decision found the two constables who responded to the call used “unnecessary force.” They were suspended, ordered to undertake de-escalation and cultural sensitivity training and told to apologize.

As part of the settlement agreement in 2022, VPB further agreed to collaborate with the Heiltsuk Nation on a series of steps to address issues of systemic anti-Indigenous racism in the police force.

In her Wednesday progress report, Govender said the agreement is something to celebrate.

“However, in my review, I found that the relationship between the Heiltsuk Nation and the VPB has broken down and must be repaired in order to move forward. I urge the parties to collaborate and recommit to the promise of this landmark agreement and to move forward in a way that respects Heiltsuk law.”

Govender recommends the Heiltsuk and VPB work together to facilitate a new apology ceremony agreeable to both parties and in accordance with Heiltsuk law.

An apology ceremony was supposed to have happened in Bella Bella’s Big House on Oct. 24 2022, but the two officers involved in handcuffing Johnson and his granddaughter never showed up. Although a delegation from the VPD attended, the nation said a true apology ceremony could not proceed. The nation has since issued several more invitations to the officers to attend a new ceremony.

Govender’s report also calls for a meeting between the leadership of the nation and VPB, along with representatives of the Johnson family, within three months.

“It is my hope that this review will help the parties get their work back on track. For reform to be successful, police must ensure Heiltsuk law and perspectives are respected in both the process and results of these efforts. With less than a year remaining in this agreement, it is crucial that the VPB and the Heiltsuk Nation refocus their efforts on rebuilding a respectful relationship, as such relationships are essential to the process of reconciliation.”

There was an opportunity for both parties to view and respond to draft versions of the commissioner’s report through an extensive administrative fairness process and they received the final version in advance of the news release, noted the BC Human Rights Commission.

In a statement, the Heiltsuk Nation said it and Johnson welcome the report.

“The Commissioner’s report affirms that ‘an apology ceremony in accordance with Heiltsuk law is necessary’ before we can move forward with the other critical anti-racism reform work entailed in the agreement,” Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said.

Heiltsuk Nation chief councillor Marilyn Slett said the nation and Johnson welcome the report.

“The Commissioner’s report affirms that ‘an apology ceremony in accordance with Heiltsuk law is necessary’ before we can move forward with the other critical anti-racism reform work entailed in the agreement,” Slett said in a written statement.

She told Black Press they would welcome another apology ceremony.

“It’s something that is important to our community to have that apology in respect to our laws and culture and it is something that would bring closure to this portion of the settlement agreement.”

Slett told Black Press Media Johnson and his granddaughter do live in the community and he has always stressed that he would be very open to having the ceremony.

“We have been very open and totally understand that everbody doesn’t understand our ceremonies. We have said we could make a cultural leader or one of our knowledge keepers available and help explain what to expect and that sort of thing,” Slett said, adding anything they can do to move the relationship forward they have been open to.

In a written statement emailed to Black Press, and on behalf of the entire VPD board, vice-chair Frank Chong thanked Commissioner Govender for the interim review report.

“We regret what took place on December 20, 2019, and the board—which provides civilian oversight of the VPD—is taking strong action to prevent it from happening again.”

Chong said the board is deeply committed to working together with the Johnson Family, Heiltsuk Tribal Council, and Union of BC Indian Chiefs to review existing policies and develop new policies and training to address systemic discrimination and anti-Indigenous racism.

“Since 2019, the Vancouver Police Department and the board have implemented a significant number of new policies, procedures, cultural awareness initiatives, as well as other training developed in consultation with the VPD’s Indigenous Advisory Committee, which includes members from Vancouver’s host First Nations on whose traditional territories we are privileged to operate.”

These efforts, which have been undertaken with the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations lay the groundwork for further engagement and collaboration with the Heiltsuk, he added.

This article has been updated with comments from Heiltsuk First Nation Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett and VPD vice-chair Frank Chong

-With files from Jane Skrypnek

READ MORE: Heiltsuk Nation calls probe into arrest of Indigenous man at bank ‘woefully inadequate’

READ MORE: ‘It’s not enough’: Heiltsuk Nation bemoans police officers’ decision not to attend apology ceremony

Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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