The absence of two Vancouver police constables hung over what was meant to be an apology ceremony in Bella Bella’s Big House Monday night (Oct. 24).
Two empty chairs set aside for Constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong sat across from a row of the Heiltsuk Nation’s hereditary chiefs and a series of speakers. Wong and Tong were disciplined in March for their part in racially profiling and wrongfully arresting Heiltsuk grandfather Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter Tori-Anne Tweedie, then 12 years old, outside a Vancouver Bank of Montreal branch in 2019.
The constables were expected to deliver oral apologies in person, but never showed up. As a result, the apology ceremony was cancelled and an uplifting ceremony for Johnson and Tweedie took its place.
Members of the Nation made sure to use the occasion to express their disappointment and anger though, addressing a delegation of Vancouver Police Board members and police Chief Adam Palmer who were in attendance.
“Thank you for being here, but it’s not enough. There’s no excuse for two absent persons in our Big House,” Heiltsuk member Kelly Brown told the delegation.
In the Nation’s culture, an apology ceremony can only be held if those who have caused harm apologize and acknowledge their wrongdoing in person.
Johnson said the absence of Wong and Tong means he and his family still can’t close this chapter of their lives. Since that day at the bank, Johnson said he’s suffered from severe panic, anxiety and depression.
Hereditary Chief Frank Brown took a harder line.
“The racism is being sheltered and condoned if you don’t hold individuals accountable,” he told the police board delegation. Moments later, he took the gift a delegate had given him earlier in the ceremony and walked it back to Palmer, saying he had to respectfully decline it.
Hereditary chief Frank Brown just returned the gift a VPD delegate gave him to Police Chief Adam Palmer. He says he can’t accept a gift from a person/institution that hasn’t acknowledged the systemic racism within it. pic.twitter.com/V6gIv9rIN0— Jane Skrypnek (@janeskrypnek) October 25, 2022
Frank also pointed to the fact that Palmer has said on multiple previous occasions that he doesn’t believe systemic racism is an issue in Canadian policing. Asked later in the evening by reporters whether he still held that belief, Palmer appeared to avoid the question. He also refused to say whether he believed Wong and Tong acted wrongfully.
No explanation has been given to as why the two constables never responded to Johnson’s invitation, but comments from both the Heiltsuk Nation and Palmer suggest the Vancouver Police Union was involved.
Speaking on behalf of the delegation during the ceremony, Vancouver Police Board vice-chair Faye Wightman didn’t comment on the constables’ absence and didn’t mention racism, but did apologize for the pain and trauma the arrest has caused Johnson, Tweedie and the community.
“We accept responsibility for your hurt,” she said.
Although they expressed anger, Heiltsuk members also said they are ready to forgive Wong and Tong when they choose to go to Bella Bella in person and take part in the traditional apology ceremony.
Palmer said he will discuss the possibility of the constables going with the police union.
Tuesday morning, the union’s president, Ralph Kaisers, issued a statement claiming that Wong and Tong have apologized already in person and that they couldn’t attend Monday’s ceremony “for personal reasons.”
Heiltsuk chief Marilyn Slett blatantly disagreed in her own statement, saying Wong and Tong have never apologized in person, nor have they ever offered to do so. She said the only apology Johnson and Tweedie have ever received was in a letter from the constables.