British Columbia

Vancouver mayor says lack of action on racism by city police is 'indefensible,' steps down as spokesperson

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart will no longer be the public face of the city's police board, saying he cannot support a department whose lack of action on systemic racism he finds "indefensible."

Kennedy Stewart says it's time for city police to be under control of city, not an independent board

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, seen here in July 2020, has delegated his spokesperson duties for the Vancouver Police Board to its vice-chair, saying he does not want to represent it anymore due to lack of action on systemic racism within the city police department. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart will no longer be the public face of the city's police board, saying he cannot support a department whose lack of action on systemic racism he finds "indefensible."

The mayor told CBC's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn Thursday morning he would be delegating his spokesperson duties to the board's vice-chair as allegations of systemic racism in the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) continue to cause public outrage and divisiveness between the force and city hall.

"I have stepped down as the spokesperson for the board because I find their positions indefensible," Stewart said.

On Wednesday, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Heiltsuk Nation announced they will intervene in an ongoing B.C. human rights case against the VPD for the wrongful detainment and handcuffing of Heiltsuk Nation member Maxwell Johnson and his then-12-year-old granddaughter outside a Bank of Montreal in December of 2019.

And last month, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner in B.C. asked the board to review an incident that resulted in the handcuffing of a former judge — a Black man several decades older than the suspect the cops were looking for.

Despite these and other incidents, Police Chief Adam Palmer has denied that systemic racism exists in his police department, and Vancouver Police Union leader Sgt. Blair Canning has lodged a formal complaint to the board, claiming the mayor's remarks about systemic racism have created a toxic work environment.

"It's a kind of a nonsense document that actually has perverted a civilian complaint process to launch a political attack against me," said Stewart about Canning's complaint. "You start pushing back against systemic racism and people get angry about it."

Vancouver Police Chief Const. Adam Palmer is photographed at a news conference in May apologizing for the wrongful detainment of Justice Selwyn Romilly, a Black retired judge who was mistaken for another suspect. (CBC News)

Scott Clark, executive director of the Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society, told CBC Radio on Friday he was surprised Palmer did not consider systemic racism a problem in the force.

"We know from our lived realities, and from the statistics, that there's something systemic going on where certain groups are over-policed [and] incarcerated and these are systems issues and they're all connected," said Clark.

He said Indigenous people, in particular, are fearful of the way police conduct themselves in the city and the lack of oversight and investigation into "numerous allegations" of police harassment and brutality. 

"If you can't identify it, if you can't even say it, then that poses a problem for the VPD and for residents of Vancouver," said Clark about Palmer's stance on systemic racism.

Clark said he would like to see the province step up and scrutinize the police union, which he said is lacking transparency and accountability. The province is currently reviewing B.C.'s Police Act.

'I was quite surprised to hear the response by the police chief saying that there was no systemic racism and that the fellow can say that with impunity,' said Vancouver Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement Society (ALIVE) executive director Scott Clark. (Wawmeesh Hamilton/CBC)

Former solicitor general Kash Heed said it's rare to see this kind of public rift.

"You have the board, which seems to be sitting on the fence on this particular issue, you have the chief, who continually entrenches and digs deeper into his position on systemic racism, and you have the mayor — which is a breath of fresh air — coming out and saying we need police reforms, we need to recognize [systemic racism] before we can change it," Heed said.

Vancouver anti-racism activist Markiel Simpson told CBC News Wednesday he would like to see Stewart, who as mayor is chair of the police board, to take leadership and fire, or encourage the resignation of, Palmer.

"A year after the murder of George Floyd, the world has evolved and people understand that systemic racism exists," said Simpson.

Stewart said he is doing everything he can to reform the police service but wants the public to know he does not have the power in his role as chair to discipline the chief; only the board can. 

"The police have to be pulled under the City of Vancouver for supervision, not left to an independent board that's appointed by the province," he said.

Stewart said he is haunted by the handcuffing of Johnson and his granddaughter — actions Palmer defended in the aftermath of the incident. The VPD has since stated it was a regrettable move, but have never formally apologized to Johnson.

"It just makes me want to cry," said Stewart. "My primary duty should be to protect the 12-year-old child. It shouldn't be to worry about what happens when you try to protect that 12-year-old child."

Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter say they are trying to find ways to deal with anxiety, fear of police and of banks since they were handcuffed in front of a Bank of Montreal in downtown Vancouver. The city's mayor says he is ashamed the two were handcuffed and that the incident is the 'poster' for systemic racism in the VPD. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

CBC reached out to the VPD for comment regarding the complaint made by Canning, which has not been made public but was leaked to Postmedia.

"Although policing has already changed significantly in the past few decades, we remain committed to ongoing dialogue with the community and to continue to evolve as a public safety organization," the VPD said in a statement responding to CBC's request.

The statement said front-line police officers and their families have been impacted by Stewart's statements about systemic racism.

"The priority for our leadership is to ensure our members feel safe and supported as they tackle difficult, often dangerous situations on a daily basis," said the police.

Stewart said he is working to make the complaint made by Canning available for the public to read, and that there appears to be confusion over the difference between systemic racism and calling someone a racist.

"Systemic racism is that the institutions are designed in a way ... that justice is unequally distributed across the population," said the mayor. "Individual racists are people that actively promote hate."

He said that systemic racism applies to the board and that it's time to take action. For him, now, that means distancing himself from the board.

"I just can't represent it anymore," said Stewart.

Police Board responds

On Friday, the Vancouver Police Board issued a statement attributed to Faye Wightman, the board's vice-chair and acting spokesperson.

According to Wightman, the board agrees with Stewart and wants to "listen, learn and do better when it comes to addressing systemic racism, diversity, and inclusivity in police services and other institutions."

A close up picture of two Vancouver Police officers with jackets and walkie-talkies on their chests.
Members of the Vancouver Police Department are pictured in Vancouver on Thursday, May 14, 2020. In a statement, the Vancouver Police Board said Friday the VPD 'is built on a foundation of structural racism and colonization' and the board is open to community dialogue how to best move forward. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"Like all police services, the VPD is built on a foundation of structural racism and colonization, and the board and the VPD have a responsibility to ensure that the essential work of dismantling any systems of inequity within our processes remains on the forefront of our priorities," said her statement.

Wightman said the board supports the provincial review on Police Act reform and "welcomes positive change through this extensive examination of how systemic racism and implicit bias relate to police services, including our own."

The statement said the board is already taking action that includes ensuring a diverse workforce, inclusive policies and cultural sensitivity training and is open to community input on how best to move forward.

"These are important discussions to have, but differences should never become the story, or a distraction to the crucial work that is being done and must continue to be done," said Wightman.

With files from The Early Edition and Michelle Ghoussoub