Vancouver mayor Kennedy Stewart slams BMO for police incident without saying "Indigenous" or "handcuffed"

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      (Warning: This commentary is longer than articles that normally appear on media websites.)

      The mayor of Vancouver has blamed a chartered bank—and not the Vancouver Police Department—for an event that has sparked outrage across Canada.

      In a statement, Kennedy Stewart declared that he felt sick when he first heard about a "police incident at the Burrard Street branch of BMO".

      There's no mention that Vancouver police handcuffed an Indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old Indigenous granddaughter and detained them in a police vehicle after the girl tried to open a bank account.

      Stewart, who also chairs the Vancouver police board, said it's "unacceptable that the Bank of Montreal turned what should have been a positive occasion into one that reinforces our colonial past".

      "I am sad for the long-term impacts this may have on the child, her family, and the broader community," Stewart said. "BMO needs to do right by this family, take full responsibility for their actions, and ensure this does not happen again."

      Then Stewart added that he has discussed this matter with the police chief, Adam Palmer, "who feels as badly as I do about how the misleading information provided by BMO staff led the officers who responded to take actions they did".

      "The officers immediately apologized once they discovered the facts of the situation, as has Chief Palmer," Stewart said. "The Chief has also made efforts to contact and apologize directly to the grandfather and I fully support and echo these apologies."

      The Vancouver Police Department has come under intense criticism over social media for its handling of this situation.

      The chief, too, has deflected attention onto the bank, telling CBC News that BMO contacted police to say a 16-year-old South Asian female and a South Asian adult were committing fraud. (An audiotape of the 9-1-1 call has not been released publicly.)

      Palmer emphasized that his officers were not racist and that they are from diverse communities.

      This isn't the only situation in which the VPD's treatment of Indigenous people has raised public concerns.

      Just last month, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal awarded an Indigenous mother, Deborah Campbell, $20,0000 to compensate for the VPD's injury to her dignity, feelings, and self-respect.

      This came after "she was roughly and physically separated from her son and blocked from witnessing her arrest", according to a 51-page ruling.

      This decision noted that the police board's only formal training for these officers about policing Indigenous people was a half-day course in 2015.

      "There was some awareness of historical wrongs," tribunal member Devyn Cousineau wrote. "However, they each said that they had not encountered that in their daily work. I find this unlikely, given that they all had significant experience policing in neighbourhoods with high Indigenous populations, including Ms. Campbell's.

      "In my view, it is more likely that they are not trained to understand or recognize problematic features of the relationship between police and Indigenous people, or their role in that."

      The respondent in that case was the Vancouver police board.

      The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs was an intervenor.

      Chief Adam Palmer told CBC News that BMO called about a fraud in progress involving a 16-year-old South Asian woman and a South Asian adult male.

      Street checks led to complaint

      In June 2018, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association filed a complaint with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner about a "significant racial disparity" in VPD street checks.

      Over a 10-year period, these groups showed that of the 97,281 street checks, about 15 percent involved Indigenous people. That occurred even though Indigenous people comprise about two percent of the city's population.

      Back then, Chief Palmer also defended his officers' actions, noting that the majority of street checks were still being conducted with white people.

      "There is a strong association between street checks and criminal charges," the chief said at the time. "The numbers show that the percentage of street checks by ethnicity is comparable to percentages by ethnicity for charges and recommended charges."

      Kennedy Stewart fulfills several responsibilities as mayor of Vancouver.

      He chairs meetings of Vancouver council and votes on staff recommendations that are brought forward in the chamber.

      Stewart serves as a director of Metro Vancouver and a member of the TransLink Mayors' Council.

      As mentioned earlier, he also chairs the Vancouver police board—the employer and governing body of the Vancouver Police Department. 

      In these roles, Stewart is a guardian of each organization's financial interests.

      By directing all of his criticism at BMO for the handcuffing of a 12-year-old child, the mayor is, in effect, shifting liability onto the bank and away from the police board.

      Stewart's statement exonerates the Vancouver Police Department for playing any role whatsoever in any injury to the dignity, feelings, and self-respect of an Indigenous girl and her Indigenous grandfather.

      Yet the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has already concluded it's "likely" that Vancouver police are "not trained to understand or recognize problematic features of the relationship between police and Indigenous people".

      The police board's decision to provide a half-day course for officers wasn't good enough, in the eyes of the tribunal.

      B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Devyn Cousineau recently issued a ruling noting that the police board only offers a half-day course to its officers on policing Indigenous people.

      Should police board members be elected?

      Today, Stewart is scheduled to hold a media briefing at Vancouver City Hall.

      One of the reporters might want to ask him if he thinks the Vancouver police board, as the employer, is providing sufficient training for officers in policing Indigenous people.

      Or does the mayor agree with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member who suggested that more needs to be done in this area?

      In light of the mayor's fairly transparent attempt to absolve the police board of liability, the B.C. NDP government might consider a new approach for selecting the chair of the police board.

      Given the size of the Vancouver Police Department budget—well over $300 million—maybe it's time to directly elect the police board chair and its members, who are currently appointed.

      That way, they can be held directly accountable by the people of Vancouver for their actions on the board.

      We already directly elect park board commissioners, who oversee a far lower budget. We also directly elect school trustees.

      Keep in mind that Stewart specialized in municipal democratic governance during his years as a public policy prof at Simon Fraser University.

      Surely, he can see the shortcomings of an appointed police board chaired by a mayor who, on some occasions, appears to have become the chief cheerleader for the cops.