More than two years after their improper arrest outside a bank in Vancouver, a First Nations man and his granddaughter have reached a settlement with Vancouver police.
Maxwell Johnson and Tori-Anne have confirmed that their ground-breaking agreement includes damages, a significant community investment, and a “two-year collaborative policy-making process to fight systemic racism, with progress to be reviewed and reported on publicly by the BC Human Rights Commissioner,” according to a news release.
“The settlement reflects an understanding that the discriminatory conduct was symptomatic of more systemic issues relating to how police view and treat Indigenous Peoples, and includes measures aimed at identifying and addressing systemic policing issues.”
Johnson said Wednesday’s settlement ends the legal action against the Vancouver Police Board.
“While my family is still in a healing process, we are committed to reconciliation and working with the police board to fight systemic racism, and make sure no one else has to experience what we went through. With today’s agreement, we can truly begin to heal and move forward,” he added.
The settlement agreement includes that the police board admits that the conduct discriminated against the complainants based on their Indigenous identities, damages to the Johnson family for injury to dignity of an undisclosed amount, and $100,000 to Heiltsuk First Nation’s restorative justice department, to fund one year of community programming for at-risk young women, including young women who suffer anxiety due to traumatic incidents.
In addition, the police board, Heiltsuk and the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) will review and develop plans over a two-year period for improving police training on anti-Indigenous racism, and cultural humility and competency, including interactions relating to Indigenous status cards, and ensuring investigation protocols, risk identification protocols, and handcuffing procedures are non-discriminatory towards Indigenous peoples, according to the release.
The police board will also create an oversight committee, with members appointed by Heiltsuk and UBCIC, to oversee the implementation of the settlement agreement, creating an annual report on the board’s website and the BC Human Rights Commissioner will review and publicly report on systemic remedies initiatives under the settlement agreement.
The board will also create a position for an anti-Indigenous-racism officer, who will review complaints relating to Indigenous Peoples and make recommendations to the board, to ensure that procedures are non-discriminatory.
“Today is an incredible victory against systemic racism,” Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of Heiltsuk Nation. “We all owe a debt of gratitude to Max and his granddaughter for their tireless pursuit of justice. As a nation, we will work hard with our partners to implement the many initiatives in this agreement, and make sure this kind of incident never happens again.”
The police board will be holding an apology ceremony at Heiltsuk’s Big House in Bella Bella on Oct. 24.
Johnson, a renowned Heiltsuk artist, will gift artwork to the board at the ceremony to signify reconciliation after the police board formally apologizes. The ceremony will mark the start of the board, Heiltsuk, and UBCIC working together on the initiatives under the settlement.
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Johnson and Tori-Anne, who both hail from the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, B.C., were trying to open a bank account at the Bank of Montreal’s Burrard Street location on Dec. 20, 2019, when a staffer suspected them of presenting fraudulent Indigenous status cards and called 911.
The two were subsequently handcuffed and arrested. Tori-Anne was just 12 years old at the time.
The pair later launched a lawsuit against BMO, filed a complaint against the bank and Vancouver police with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, and a complaint against the Vancouver Police Department with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC).
In April, a retired B.C. judge ruled that the officers who arrested Johnson and Tori-Anne “recklessly used unnecessary force.” Acting as a Discipline Authority for the OPCC, Brian Neal found the officers committed professional misconduct, assumed fraud without sufficient information, and did not take time to assess if anyone was at risk.
Johnson and Tori-Anne also reached a settlement with the Bank of Montreal in the spring, but did not reveal the dollar amount. Johnson closed his bank account on May 5 and announced the end of his legal action against BMO after a short ceremony in Vancouver.
“Part of our culture is to forgive. We don’t hold onto anything,” Johnson said at the time. “I just want people to educate themselves more about First Nations issues and our culture.”
The bank’s settlement with Johnson included a private apology ceremony with BMO in Bella Bella, and the installment of territorial acknowledgment plaques at BMO branches on Indigenous land.
As part of the agreement, BMO has updated internal policies and procedures for how status cards are handled, and created an organization-wide education course on Indigenous culture for all staff. It has also participated in a Heiltsuk cultural competency workshop, established an Indigenous Advisory Council, and made various donations in support of Indigenous communities.
“We are pleased that we have reached a settlement with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter,” wrote BMO Canadian media relations director Jeff Roman in an email on May 5.
“This was an important step for BMO toward reconciliation and we hope that the Johnsons reach the resolution and closure they deserve.”
Johnson and his granddaughters’ actions have already resulted in substantive change. They sparked national coverage, provoked a conversation on racial profiling, and last year, led to the first meaningful update in the Vancouver Police Department’s handcuffing policy since 2007.
Slett has previously said its mission has been to bring “light” to discrimination in financial institutions and change corporate culture.
“We’re in this era of reconciliation as a country and it doesn’t just rest of government and Indigenous communities to make things right, it rests on every single individual,” she said on May 5.
“Standing up for those voices that don’t really have the courage or support to be able to do what Max has — it’s really important. The changes we would like to see are certainly not one-off changes.”
Johnson and Tori-Anne are not the only Heiltsuk members whose identities have been questioned at a bank in B.C.
On May 5, 2021, Sharif Bhamji entered a TD branch in Surrey and presented his status card to a teller. He told Global News she didn’t believe who he was because of his mixed Heiltsuk and East Indian heritage.
Bhamji was asked to leave, and he said police later showed up at his doorstep, likely called by the bank, which suspected him of using fraudulent identification.
When Bhamji filed a human rights complaint against TD in March, the bank said in an emailed statement it was “troubled to hear about Mr. Bhamji’s experience” and acknowledged “the hurt that was caused.” Ryan-Sang Lee, a Vancouver-based manger for TD corporate and public affairs, said TD reached out to Bhamji to make a personal apology and vows to conduct a full review of what took place.
“We recognize the reality of systemic racism and the courage it takes to speak out. We will respectfully engage and cooperate with the Canadian Human Rights Commission process,” he wrote.