British Columbia·Video

Apology ceremony between police, Indigenous family won't go ahead as planned after arresting officers' no-show

A long-awaited apology ceremony for an Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were wrongfully handcuffed outside a bank in Vancouver will not be going ahead as planned Monday after the two arresting officers decided not to attend.

Police board says it is meeting terms of human rights settlement with Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter

Maxwell Johnson is pictured during a news conference regarding his wrongful detainment in Vancouver on Sept. 28, 2022. Johnson and the Heiltsuk Nation were expecting the officers who arrested them in 2019 to attend Monday's apology ceremony in Bella Bella, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

UPDATE, Oct. 25, 2022: Heiltsuk leaders reject Vancouver police apology after officers in bank arrest fail to attend ceremony

A long-awaited apology ceremony for an Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were wrongfully handcuffed when they tried to open a bank account in Vancouver will not be going ahead as planned Monday after the two arresting officers decided not to attend.

The ceremony and feast in Bella Bella, B.C., was included in a human rights settlement between Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, who were detained by two Vancouver police officers on a busy downtown street outside a Bank of Montreal branch nearly three years ago.

Johnson said the officers' decision to miss the event left him at a loss.

"It's very disheartening to get the news that the two officers can't be here without any explanation, and we can't go full circle with our healing now because they chose not to show up," Johnson told reporters from Gvakva'aus Hailzaqv, or House of the Heiltsuk.

"It's like they're stepping on our culture. They're not taking into account our way of life ... I take it very personally."

Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, right, are pictured during a news conference on on Sept. 28 regarding their wrongful detainment in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

CBC News confirmed earlier Monday that Vancouver Police Department (VPD) constables Mitchel Tong and Canon Wong would be absent from the formal apology, which was supposed to take place Monday evening inside the nation's big house.

"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," read a statement from the Vancouver Police Board.

WATCH | Maxwell Johnson says he takes the officers' absence 'very personally':

Maxwell Johnson speaks to officers' 'disheartening' decision to miss apology ceremony

1 year ago
Duration 0:56
Maxwell Johnson, who was wrongfully handcuffed by Vancouver police officers, says the arresting officers' decision not to attend an apology ceremony with the Heiltsuk Nation was deeply disappointing.

Heiltsuk protocol doesn't allow for stand-ins

In light of the officers' decision not to come, the nation said the apology ceremony could not go ahead as planned and will be converted into an "uplifting ceremony" for Johnson and his family.

"Because Heiltsuk protocols do not allow for people to stand in place of others, a traditional Apology Ceremony cannot be carried out unless those who caused the harm are themselves present," read a statement from the nation.

An overview of the settlement provided by the nation said the board agreed to "host an apology ceremony in Bella Bella and make best efforts to ensure that the constables who arrested Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter attend the event."

Referring to the "best efforts," the board's statement on Monday said it was "meeting the terms as defined in the human rights settlement in both the specifics and in the spirit of the agreement — with a commitment to authentic healing and reconciliation."

The board and its officers were poised to apologize in person for discriminating against Johnson and his granddaughter because of their Indigenous identity, race and ancestry.

Other members of a police delegation were scheduled to arrive on a chartered flight Monday morning.

Heiltsuk leaders who were provided with a passenger list for the plane arriving in the remote village, around 480 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, said Sunday they were dismayed to see the constables' names were missing.

The passenger list included the names of several senior VPD officials, including Chief Const. Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Const. Howard Chow. 

"Those from the board and VPD in attendance today represent our commitment as an organization to show up to be in community with the Heiltsuk Nation, to stand together against discrimination, and to collaborate on our common goal of systemic change," the police board said.

Johnson, right, and his granddaughter, centre, are pictured during a news conference on Sept. 28. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

'Symptom of ... systemic failure'

The story of the arrests became "a symbol of the fight against systemic racism," according to Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett.

But this latest development has Heiltsuk leaders questioning when their fight will end.

Maxwell Johnson's granddaughter speaks after human rights settlement

1 year ago
Duration 1:56
Maxwell Johnson's granddaughter, Tori-Anne, makes a statement after she and her grandfather settled their human rights complaint against the Vancouver Police Board over their wrongful detainment in 2019.

A statement released by the nation Monday said it viewed the constables' non-attendance "as a symptom of the larger systemic failure to acknowledge and take responsibility for systemic racism in the Vancouver Police Department."

The nation had been planning the ceremony since March. Community leaders said Wong and Tong were repeatedly invited — including publicly by Johnson — and told seats would be left open for them until the last minute.

"We don't know why [they aren't here]. We don't know what compelled them to not come here today," said elected Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett. 

"This behaviour demonstrates a further lack of respect, which is disheartening ... [and] disappointing considering the officers are supposed to be immersing themselves in cultural competency training."

The police board did not say why the officers chose not to attend.

"We 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," the statement read.

VPD initially said incident not racist

On Dec. 20 that year, a BMO branch manager called 911 because she thought Johnson and his granddaughter were presenting fake ID cards, according to phone transcripts.

Wong and Tong arrived on scene and handcuffed Johnson and his granddaughter outside the bank. Both were released within the hour.

WATCH | Maxwell Johnson's granddaughter speaks after settlement:

VPD officers handcuff Heiltsuk man and 12-year-old granddaughter outside bank

2 years ago
Duration 2:42
Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter are handcuffed by Vancouver police officers on a busy street outside a BMO branch in Vancouver after the pair tried to open her first bank account using government-approved Indian Status cards.

This spring, the two arresting officers were suspended and ordered to apologize for their "serious, blameworthy" misconduct.

Brian Neal, a retired provincial court judge appointed to the case by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, found the officers each committed two counts of abuse of authority by "recklessly arresting the complainants and by using unnecessary force by applying handcuffs."

The VPD did not respond to requests made on Thursday, Sunday or Monday for information about the police board members and officers scheduled to make the trip to Bella Bella. 


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.

With files from Jessica Cheung