Vancouver police discriminated against Indigenous mother, B.C. rights tribunal rules

The Vancouver Police Board has been ordered to pay an Indigenous mother $20,000 in damages after the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled Vancouver Police officers discriminated against her when she witnessed them arrest her son in 2016.

In addition to awarding damages to Deborah Campbell, the tribunal also ordered the Vancouver Police Board to provide better training to police who are working with Indigenous people "to ensure they are able to do so without discrimination."

According to the ruling released Thursday, Campbell was walking her two dogs near her home the night of July 15, 2016 when she saw police stop and arrest her 19-year-old son and a female friend, accusing them of being involved in an alleged assault earlier that night.

Several hours after the incident, police released the son because they had "no basis to hold him," the ruling said.

That short window of time, while Campbell watched her son's arrest, was the subject of the human rights ruling, based on Campbell's allegation that police had discriminated against her as an Indigenous woman.

Saw police arrest son

In a 52-page decision, the tribunal ruled in Campbell's favour, saying police discriminated against her that night.

The ruling also notes how Campbell's interactions are situated within a distinct social context in which it's largely been accepted that Indigenous Peoples are overpoliced and underprotected.

"In short, the Canadian state has historically, and persistently, interfered with the ability of Indigenous parents to ensure their children's safety. Indigenous parents have good reason to be fearful when they perceive their children at risk of harm at the hands of the state," the ruling says.

The ruling includes a publication ban on the names of Campbell's son and friend who were arrested.

According to the ruling, it was nearly midnight on the night in question when Campbell ran into her son and a friend, who, shortly after spotting them, were suddenly arrested by Vancouver Police.

Campbell was fearful and concerned for her son's well-being and stayed on the scene, trying to find out what was happening.

The Vancouver Police Board denied that their officers' behaviour was discriminatory, saying that Campbell was interfering with their ability to secure the scene and make an arrest. It argued the officers' behaviour was measured and appropriate, the decision said.

But the Human Rights Tribunal disagreed. The ruling said police would not answer her questions the night they arrested her son, even as more of them arrived.

Subconcious bias

Instead, she was treated like an annoyance and treated suspiciously. She was told to go home and was physically removed from the scene. At one point, she was threatened with arrest for obstruction.

One officer testified that in his view, Campbell was trying to incite a crowd.

The tribunal disagreed with this characterization and instead found "she was single‐mindedly focused on the arrest of her son" and finding what was happening to him.

The tribunal said the police treatment of her appeared to be based on subconscious bias. "They interpreted her conduct through a lens of suspicion and stereotype," the ruling said, instead of as a "mother with legitimate concerns about her son."

Christer Waara/CBC
Christer Waara/CBC

The ruling includes evidence from several sources, including several of the constables who were on the scene of the arrest that night, witness testimony, Campbell's accounting of the events, and submissions from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and other experts.

Orders more police training

The ruling stated that the five police constables who gave evidence received little formal training about policing Indigenous people, noting the only formal training they'd been through was a half day course in 2015.

The tribunal also ruled more police training is needed if the ruling is to be meaningful in stopping further discrimination against Indigenous people.

That training should, among other things, ensure that police know of the stereotypes applied to Indigenous people, identify tools to address and minimize how this might come up in their encounters with Indigenous people, and understand how these stereotypes manifest in a policing context.