For decades, Vancouver's police chiefs have largely had their way with the city's mayors.
Since I started working in the media, I've seen six mayors blithely go along with whatever the police department, and sometimes its powerful union, seemed to want.
It wasn't only regarding budgetary matters, either. One former Vancouver mayor peddled the VPD's line that there wasn't a serial killer on the loose in the 1990s even as women kept disappearing. He wouldn't approve a reward because he didn't want to fund a "prostitute relocation service".
Another mayor wasn't interested in advocating for a public inquiry into the death of an Indigenous man, Frank Paul, who was dragged out of the police station on his back—leaving a urine stain across the floor. Police dropped him off in an alley, where he was later found dead. That left some questioning whether he was actually dead when he was dragged out of the station.
Another mayor didn't raise hell when a police chief left a bullet-riddled target-range silhouette on the desk of the city manager with the message: "A bad day at the range is better than the best day at work."
Police requests to load up on more officers before the 2010 Olympics were rubber-stamped by council, a majority of whose party received donations from the Vancouver Police Union.
From 2010 to 2020, the VPD's budget ballooned from about $200 million to $340 million. Yet the Vancouver police board has fought council's attempt to freeze the budget in the pandemic year, when 1,800 city staff were laid off and other departmental budgets were sharply cut.
But now, all of the sudden, we have a mayor who's prepared to stand up to a police chief when he thinks the chief is misguided. Proof of this came when Stewart, who chairs the police board as a result of a provincial law, declared that there is systemic racism within all institutions, including the Vancouver Police Department.
Chief Adam Palmer has disputed that systemic racism exists within the VPD. He's called this "offensive".
And one of his former policing partners, Sgt. Blair Canning, filed a complaint against Stewart to the police board. Canning alleged, among other things, that the mayor is contributing to a toxic workplace, according to portions of the complaint, which were leaked to the Vancouver Sun.
It's surreal in light of the head of the Mounties acknowledging that systemic racism occurs within the RCMP and the chiefs of other departments in North America making similar acknowledgements.
It's surreal, in light of the recent arrest of a Black octogenarian retired B.C. Supreme Court justice who was taking his morning walk on the seawall.
It's also surreal in light of the video recently released by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the Heiltsuk Nation. It showed an Indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old granddaughter handcuffed and searched by VPD officers when the girl tried to open a bank account at a downtown BMO branch.
The former B.C. advocate for children and youth, Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond, will be applying to intervene in a human rights case filed against the VPD for wrongful detainment.
“This intervention is about supporting a complaint that aims to fight systemic racism, hold institutions accountable, and offer redress for the racial profiling and wrongful detainment that Max and his granddaughter experienced at the hands of the VPD,” Turpel-Lafond said in a news release. “This case embodies the systemic racism that we must all work together to eliminate.”
In January 2020, Mayor Stewart issued a statement denouncing BMO for calling the police. I took him to task in a commentary for not showing the same vigour in criticizing the VPD's actions.
In the same commentary, I noted that the previous month, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal had awarded an Indigenous mother $20,000 after she was mistreated by police when she wanted to witness the arrest of her son.
To his credit, Stewart said in a recent interview on CBC's Early Edition show that he regretted not speaking up more forcefully at that time. And he's sticking to his position that systemic racism exists within all institutions, including the Vancouver police.
"I've got to always keep that 12-year-old child in my head," Stewart said.
In the same interview with CBC's Stephen Quinn, he called on the VPD leadership and the police board to explain that the term "systemic racism" does not imply that police officers are deliberately racist.
Systemic racism refers to the system itself not responding adequately to the inequities that have become embedded within institutions as a result our history.
For evidence of that, read the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruling from 2019, which demonstrated how little training VPD officers receive in Indigenous history.
It takes guts to stand up to a police chief. Especially a chief who refused at one point to allow an officer to be interviewed by the Independent Investigations Office. And a chief who has refused to this day to divulge the names of any officer who participated in the fatal police beating of Sechelt landscaper Myles Gray.
The public should take note of Stewart's courage in his dealings with the VPD. That's an extremely rare event in Vancouver's recent political history.