Skip to main content
opinion

Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.

For anyone who believes racism against Canada’s Indigenous people is dead, consider the case of a Heiltsuk man and his granddaughter who recently ended up in handcuffs while attempting to open a bank account in downtown Vancouver. Maxwell Johnson, 56, told the CBC that he has banked with BMO since 2014 and expected, as would anyone, it would be easy to open a bank account for his 12-year-old granddaughter so he could transfer money to her when she was away on basketball trips.

Mr. Johnson said the bank employee stated, “the numbers didn’t match up,” took the pair’s identification and called the Vancouver police to report a fraud in progress. He believes the employee was suspicious because he had $30,000 in his account, an amount awarded by the federal government for a past wrong over a fisheries dispute.

The police arrived quickly, as they do when calls come in from a bank. And somehow the responding officers felt it necessary to cuff both alleged culprits even though one of them was a sobbing 12-year-old. Cameron Fowler, the bank’s diversity champion, who clearly has mountains to climb, grovelled in a statement. But the pressure continued and on Thursday, BMO’s CEO Darryl White announced the formation of an Indigenous advisory council to up the institution’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Whether that will appease outraged customers remains to be seen – they can take their business elsewhere if they wish.

But the broader concern for Vancouverites is the behaviour of police – the ones we rely on to treat people fairly. Why did the officers whip out the cuffs? After all, this was far from an armed holdup and there is no indication any violence ensued. And yet, Police Chief Adam Palmer’s first instinct, when interviewed by the CBC, was to unequivocally defend the actions of his own shop. He called the incident regrettable, but said the officers were acting on information from a credible source and that they followed standard procedure. He also said, curiously, that the officers are not racist and noted they both come from “diverse communities,” implying the only people who are racist against Indigenous people are white.

This is not the first time Chief Palmer has played down allegations of police discrimination against Indigenous people. In June of 2018, he denied a report from civil liberty groups that Indigenous people are disproportionately and unfairly targeted in random police checks. The numbers show that 16 per cent of street checks involve Indigenous people, who comprise only 2 per cent of Vancouver’s population. Chief Palmer insisted that every time an Indigenous person is asked to show identification, police have had compelling reasons to ask. This, just like the implication racialized police officers are incapable of discrimination, defies belief.

The story has touched a chord with the public, so much so it has prompted an investigation by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. Mayor Kennedy Stewart also stated this week that the incident left him feeling sick. Mr. Stewart, who chairs the police board, discussed the matter with Chief Palmer and promised a full review of the police department’s policies and procedures. Yet over all, the mayor’s statement sounds more critical of BMO staff who proffered the inaccurate information than the police response.

Mr. Stewart should be taking a harder look inward. Perhaps in addition to a policy review, he could recommend an Indigenous awareness refresher course for his chief. Chief Palmer would learn, first off, that racism exists in every culture. “That’s the way the world works,” says Bob Joseph, who offers Indigenous awareness training courses to teach people about historical factors that have led to common stereotypes.

While it is admirable for leaders to back their employees, Chief Palmer takes it too far. Even though he and his officers apologized to Mr. Johnson, it was too little, too late. The chief’s subsequent comments make him seem oblivious to the discrimination Indigenous people face daily and sets a bad example for the city’s reconciliation efforts.

Nobody wants to be a poster child for poor race relations, and both BMO and the Vancouver police seem headed in that direction. The incident is certainly on Mr. Joseph’s radar. “From a training perspective, it will be a great case study.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.