VPD officers discriminated against Indigenous mother, says BC Human Rights Tribunal

FILE - A Vancouver police cruiser seen in Commercial Drive. Simon Little / Global News

The Vancouver Police Board must pay an Indigenous woman $20,000 in damages after the B.C. Human Rights tribunal ruled that Vancouver police officers discriminated against her.

Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau ruled that Deborah Campbell suffered injury to her “dignity, feelings, and self-respect” as a result of an encounter with police in July 2016, and said the actions of the officers perpetuated a “historical disadvantage” against her as an Indigenous person.

“It is entirely consistent with a long and continued history of discrimination by police against Indigenous people. The forces that led the parties to this place have been a long time in the making and will require a significant effort to undo,” Cousineau wrote in her ruling.

The VPD has also been ordered to train officers to interact with Indigenous people without discrimination.

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That training must begin in the next year, the tribunal ruled, and be conducted annually over the next five years to educate officers on how stereotypes against Indigenous people have operated in a policing context, and on historical distrust against police.

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Mother treated ‘like a gnat’ by police

On Jul. 15, 2016, Campbell was walking her dogs in her residential neighbourhood when she saw VPD officers arresting her 19-year old son. The son had been seen in the company of a woman accused of threatening to stab a man who lived in the area.

One of the officers told the tribunal that he arrested Campbell’s son and the woman he was with for assault and uttering threats — but the son became hostile, saying he had done nothing wrong.

“[The officer] perceived that it was most important to take custody of the Son first, mainly because as a man he posed a bigger threat. He handcuffed and searched the Son and then called for backup,” reads the ruling.

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According to the ruling, Campbell was “roughly and physically separated from her son and blocked from witnessing his arrest”, which lasted roughly 20 minutes. She was also threatened with arrest for obstruction of justice.

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Cousineau said Campbell was extremely anxious and afraid for her son, and viewed her motherhood as “deeply rooted in her Indigenous culture”.

“That means protecting my son, taking care of my son, that means ensuring his safety as much as I can,” Campbell told the tribunal. “It means feeding him, eating with him, talking to him every day, caring about him. It doesn’t end when they turn 19 in our culture.”

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Campbell and a witness told the tribunal that the officers were dismissive and unhelpful, and were “sneering” and “rolling their eyes” at Campbell’s questions about her son.

The witness said the officers treated Campbell “like a gnat.”

Campbell’s son was released after three hours in custody, when police confirmed they had no basis on which to hold him.

Officers lacked understanding of troubled history

Cousineau considered the long and “troubled relationship” Indigenous people have had with all aspects of the criminal justice system in Canada. She also noted that Indigenous people are aware of violence perpetuated against them by police in Canada, as well as their vulnerability at the hands of police.

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“None of this is controversial. The Vancouver Police Department itself has recognized the fear and lack of trust which pervade its relationship with Indigenous people,” Cousineau wrote, citing a 2018 VPD report focused on the issue.

The report was written as part of the VPD’s submission to the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).

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Cousineau also found the officers who responded didn’t have an adequate understanding of the department’s history with Indigenous people.

The only formal training the officers had received from the police board on policing Indigenous people came from a half-day of training in 2015, the tribunal heard.

“Police officers interacting with Indigenous people should come armed with a basic understanding of Canada’s colonial history and the collective and individual trauma this history has engendered among generations of Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women and girls,” reads the ruling.

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READ MORE: B.C. First Nations call on Canada to take action after release of ‘appalling’ MMIWG report

Cousineau acknowledged that the police board is making “important and impressive” efforts to better its relationship with Indigenous people, but said that commitment didn’t manifest in the interaction Campbell had with the responding officers.

She said while none of the officers appeared to consciously subscribe to negative stereotypes about Indigenous people, they inferred stereotypes by assuming Campbell was suspicious, had an “agenda,” and was trying to cause a disturbance — rather than being a frightened mother trying to find out what was happening to her son.

While Campbell raised her voice at times, Cousineau found she was simply reacting to the situation.

“Ms. Campbell believed that she and her son were being racially profiled and mistreated by the police. In such circumstances, she is not expected to ‘sit by meekly,'” Cousineau wrote.

More training needed to improve relations

The police board had argued that they shouldn’t have to implement new training procedures because it already has procedures in place. But Cousineau found that a lack of training laid the groundwork for the discrimination that Campbell faced.

“The half day of cultural awareness training that new recruits receive, and that some members of the department received in 2015, is insufficient. The officers involved in this case could remember very little about that training, except that they should treat Indigenous people with respect,” Cousineau said.

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At least one officer agreed they needed more training, telling the tribunal that education about the “darker side of Indigenous history” was a “minor component” of the training they received.

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VPD spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin told Global News the department is aware of the ruling.

“The City of Vancouver’s legal department is reviewing the decision and we anticipate that review will take several days,” she said in an emailed statement.

“For now, what I can tell you is that our cultural competence training is ongoing and always evolving. Our goal is to ensure our members understand and implement culturally appropriate and trauma-informed practices.”

The Vancouver Police Board, run through the city and chaired by Mayor Kennedy Stewart, is mandated with establishing and providing general direction to the Vancouver Police Department.

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It also acts as the authority for police and service complaints, according to its website.

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