Granddaughter’s handcuffing haunts Heiltsuk Nation man, even as police settle rights case

Maxwell Johnson is still haunted by the helplessness he felt watching his then 12-year-old granddaughter get handcuffed outside a bank almost three years ago, even after accepting a settlement in their human rights complaint against the Vancouver Police Board.

Johnson signed a deal to settle the case at a news conference on Wednesday.

The Heiltsuk Nation artist and his granddaughter, now 15, were wrongly detained and handcuffed by police after visiting a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver in December 2019 to open an account for the girl.

A bank employee phoned 911 after mistakenly suspecting that their Indian status cards were fake.

A statement from the Heiltsuk Nation called it a “unique and impactful” settlement that involves an apology for discrimination, undisclosed damages to Johnson’s family and a $100,000 payment to fund the nation’s restorative justice department.

The police board will hold an apology ceremony at the Heiltsuk’s big house in Bella Bella on B.C.’s central coast next month, and develop a plan over two years to improve police training on anti-Indigenous racism, “cultural humility” and competency.

The statement says the police board will also hire an anti-Indigenous-racism officer to review complaints.

Johnson said he was pleased with the resolution of the Human Rights Tribunal case, but his family is still in a healing process.

“One of the things I kept seeing is my granddaughter standing on the street, crying while she’s been handcuffed,” he said.

“I don’t think any parent or grandparent should ever see that in their lifetime ? all I could do was just stand there and not do anything. I will never get that image out of my head,” said Johnson, who wept after speaking.

Johnson’s granddaughter, Tori-Anne, said she hoped her story could encourage more people to stand up against injustice and discrimination. Johnson’s lawyer, Sabrina Zhu, asked the media not to use the girl’s surname.

Tori-Anne said the handcuffing occurred during a family trip to Vancouver “when we were supposed to be making good memories together.”

“Instead, what happened to me and my grandfather traumatized me. I’m still healing from that day,” she said.

“I also want to tell everyone, especially Indigenous kids, to be strong and speak out when they face discrimination. I hope that my grandfather and I helped you feel like you can speak up and be heard when you experience injustice.”

Johnson and his granddaughter after being put in handcuffs by Vancouver police on the sidewalk outside the BMO bank.

As part of the settlement, the police board admitted officers had discriminated against Johnson and his granddaughter based on their Indigenous identities.

The police board’s payment to the Heiltsuk First Nation’s restorative justice department will fund community programming for at-risk young women.

An additional $20,000 payment will be made to reimburse the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs for expenses related to the case.

The Vancouver Police Board said in a statement that it was committed to taking positive and collaborative steps to “create a more meaningful relationship with Indigenous communities.”

“The Board recognizes the significance of the settlement we have reached with Mr. Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter,” it said.

“We are looking forward to this opportunity to work in partnerships with the groups involved by reviewing and improving a range of culturally sensitive and relevant practices and policies, in particular those focused on Indigenous people.”

Johnson will give artwork to the police board at the Bella Bella ceremony on Oct. 24.

The Union of B.C. Indian Chief’s legal counsel, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, called the settlement “historic and path-breaking”.

Johnson announced in May that he had reached an agreement with the bank that included an undisclosed payment from BMO, a private apology and a pledge to update the bank’s policies on how status cards are handled.

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