British Columbia·Video

Heiltsuk leaders reject Vancouver police apology after officers in bank arrest fail to attend ceremony

High-ranking Vancouver police officers and board members came bearing gifts for what was set to be an apology feast in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella. But a gift and the apology were rejected after the two constables who handcuffed a Heiltsuk man and his granddaughter outside a Vancouver bank in 2019 failed to attend.

VPD chief called out for denying racism, gift from police returned in Bella Bella, B.C.

Heiltsuk hereditary chief returns gift from Vancouver police

11 months ago
Duration 1:14
Heiltsuk hereditary Chief Frank Brown returned a feast bowl the Vancouver Police Department had given chiefs during what should have been an apology feast in Bella Bella, B.C., on Oct. 24, 2022.

Nearly 20 high-ranking Vancouver police officers and police board members, including Chief Adam Palmer, came bearing gifts to host what was set to be an apology feast in the Heiltsuk Nation community of Bella Bella on Monday.

But a gift and the apology were rejected.

Nation leaders expected the two Vancouver Police Department (VPD) constables who arrested Heiltsuk man Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter in 2019 to attend the ceremony in order to apologize face to face.

Neither Mitchel Tong nor Canon Wong showed up.

"We are deeply saddened and hurt by this decision by those two men because it's their decision and nobody else's," said Heiltsuk leader Kelly Brown. 

"The Heiltsuk Nation extended multiple invitations to Mitchel Tong and Canon Wong."

Palmer told CBC News the officers could not attend for personal reasons.

An Indigenous man in traditional clothing with a totem pole and Indigenous artwork in the background.
Maxwell Johnson inside the big house in Bella Bella, B.C., late Monday, after voicing his anger and disappointment that the two Vancouver officers who handcuffed him and his granddaughter had failed to attend an apology ceremony. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Johnson, who was handcuffed outside a downtown Vancouver branch of the Bank of Montreal alongside his then 12-year-old granddaughter after staff called police while he was trying to set up a bank account for her, also expressed disappointment and anger at the absence of the officers. 

He said he won't be able to heal until he gets an apology directly from the officers.

"It's been very traumatizing for the last three years," he said.

'I can't accept this gift'

While the apology feast did not go forward, Heiltsuk leaders had an uplifting ceremony for Johnson's family to help them heal from the incident.

The police board members and officers witnessed the event, alongside about 150 guests and several reporters.

During speeches at the ceremony, Heiltsuk leaders condemned Palmer for previously denying that the officers who arrested Johnson and his granddaughter were racist. 

"I heard that the Vancouver police chief said that no racism existed in that police department, but yet this [human rights] tribunal found that there was," said hereditary Chief Frank Brown.

Hereditary Chief Frank Brown addresses police officials during the uplifting ceremony for Maxwell Johnson and his family at the big house in Bella Bella, B.C., on Monday. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Referring to the handcuffing of Johnson and his granddaughter, he added: "The light was shone on the ugly face of racism in Vancouver by the Vancouver city police." 

Brown then crossed the floor to where Palmer was sitting with other police officials and returned a feast bowl the VPD had given hereditary chiefs.

"With all due respect I can't accept this gift," Brown said to applause from the big house.

Despite the strong emotions, Palmer told reporters he thought it was a thoughtful ceremony.

"The ceremony tonight was very powerful and impactful and we want to move forward in a positive way with the Heiltsuk Nation, which is what they want to do and what we want to do," he told reporters. 

Maxwell Johnson shakes hands with Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer following the ceremony at the big house in Bella Bella, B.C., on Monday. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Palmer also told CBC News he would be in discussions with the Heiltsuk to consider arrangements to bring the two officers to Bella Bella to provide an in-person apology. 

"That's something we will work through with our union and with the officers and we will see if we can find a resolution on that."

On Tuesday, the Heiltsuk Nation issued a statement to say constables Wong and Tong "have never apologized in-person to Maxwell Johnson and his family since the incident occurred."

It also said the officers have never reached out to offer such an apology.

Elected Heiltsuk chief calls union's release 'misinformation'

Outgoing Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart, who also chairs the city's police board, said it was disappointing that the constables didn't attend the ceremony.

"I think this sends, definitely, the wrong signal," he said.

Stewart said he'd been told the Vancouver Police Union was opposed to the idea of constables Wong and Tong going to Bella Bella for the ceremony. 

But in a statement, Vancouver Police Union President Ralph Kaisers said Wong and Tong were "unable to attend for personal reasons" and that they had apologized to Johnson in person and in written letters.

In a statement of her own, elected Heiltsuk Chief Marilynn Slett called the union's release "misinformation," and that neither Wong or Tong had ever apologized but she was still hopeful they would come to Bella Bella to do so.

'We have to have closure' 

As part of the uplifting ceremony, Johnson, his granddaughter and his son, who witnessed the handcuffing, were brushed off with cedar boughs and told the ceremony would help to take away the pain of the event.

Johnson said he wanted to provide prints of his art work to the VPD but would wait until the two officers decide to come to the community in person.

"If any of you can tell them that I really wish they can come so we can all have closure," he said.

"That part of our culture, we have to have closure," he said. "We are not done yet, we need to have that forgiveness."

An Indigenous man and teenage girl wearing traditional clothing stand among a small crowd in front of Indigenous artwork.
Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter take part in a ceremony in Bella Bella, B.C. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.