Ceremony as Remedy? A Heiltsuk resource for doing TRC#28 work in the law school.

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Bella Bella Big House – Photo credit Charity Gladstone/Canadian Press

In the fall of 2019, the news carried the story of an Indigenous man and his granddaughter who were detained and handcuffed in the context of trying to open a bank account at a branch of the Bank of Montreal in Vancouver.  In short, a bank teller had ‘become suspicious’ that fraud was involved, and the RCMP were called. The pair were detained and handcuffed in front of the bank. The RCMP determined within the hour that there was no criminal activity, and the bank later agreed that it had been a mistake to call the police. Here is a link to Angela Sterritt’s report on what happened to the grandfather and granddaughter, both Heiltsuk from the community of Bella Bella.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/indigenous-girl-grandfather-handcuffed-bank-1.5419519

There was significant national and international media swirl around the case.  Angela Sterritt played an important part in keeping the issue prominent, and with a lens that focused on the Indigenous experience of commercial racism.

What is exciting here is seeing what the Heiltsuk actually DID in response to the injury that had been caused to their members — they held a “Washing Ceremony”.  Here is  Rafferty Baker’s report for CBC.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/bmo-heiltsuk-bella-bella-ceremony-1.5483320

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Maxwell Johnson said being in the community’s big house brings him a solace that the incident at BMO disrupted. (Angela Sterritt)

What the Heiltsuk have done in this case is to take action on the basis of Heiltsuk law. I do not know very much about the Heiltsuk washing ceremony, and I suspect that few of us teaching in law schools do, but the Heiltsuk conducted the ceremony in a way that can help non-Heiltsuk begin learning about their obligations and responsibilities under Heiltsuk law, as well as about Heiltsuk ways of addressing harms and injuries.

Angela Sterritt was invited to participate as a witness to the ceremony, and the community agreed that media could be part of this conversation.  Thus, these reports provides a lens for learning about (and teaching about) this work.  Here is her CBC report,”Indigenous Ceremony tries to right wrong caused by handcuffing of grandfather and granddaughter. (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/reporter-s-notebook-grandfather-handcuffed-bank-1.5484448

There is also a twitter feed that fleshes out this experience. https://twitter.com/AngelaSterritt/status/1235040345722720257

HOW MIGHT THIS BE DRAWN INTO THE CLASSROOM?

For people thinking about how they might respond to the TRC Calls to Action in their own classrooms, this case provides many powerful lessons, and directions for engagement.  It could also be draw into a number of different classroom contexts.

  • One might think of this case through a criminal law lens. The story offers space for looking at the law around detention, reasonable grounds/reasonable suspicion. It also asks about the place of private citizens (or corporations) in ‘policing’ the spaces of commerce and economy. There is lots here that raises questions about what racial profiling looks like when it is performed by private rather than public actors.
  • One might also think of this case through a tort law lens. Again, what does ‘wrongful arrest’ look like in the tort context? What duty of care do banks owe to customers? And what precisely is the harm? What kind of damages would repair the injury done? And who precisely is responsible for the injury: the bank teller? the police officers? the bank manager? the board of directors?
  • The question of WHO is responsible for the harm also raises the kinds of questions that come up in the context of not only corporate crime, but also corporate torts. That is, there are questions raised here about institutional actors (corporations). What theories of liability and responsibility are most appropriate when intention and action are differentially distributed through a corporate structure.  There is much in this case that can provide background for addressing Call to Action #92.
  • And of course, WHOSE LAW applies to injuries such as these? This is a particularly live question in BC where questions about unceded territory, and the limits of state sovereignty continue to take centre ground.  [NOTE: a super helpful resource on Sovereignty in BC is Claxton, Nicholas XEMTOLTW, and John Price. “Whose Land Is It? Rethinking Sovereignty in British Columbia.” BC Studies 204 (2019-2020): 125-48.  I would HIGHLY recommend putting this on your summer reading list or in your curriculum for the students].

 

In both the Sterritt and Rafferty accounts of the ceremony, there are some spaces for opening the conversation. Things to note:

  • The harm to Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter is identified as having both individual and collective elements: There was an injury not only to the two of them, but to the community as a whole.
  • The community as a whole stepped in to focus on repairing the harm to the grandfather and granddaughter. The ceremony enabled a public acknowledgement and witnessing of the harm, and an opportunity for him to speak about that harm to those representing the bank.
  • 15 representatives from the bank were present. Their job was to hear the expression of hurt and anger.  They were not (like other witnesses) given a space to speak. There is something interesting and important here in thinking about the role of taking public responsibility (at least of thinking about the different ways that acknowledgement might work). Also something important about the place of listening without responding.
  • Witnesses were called, so there is a public memory of the event, and of the removal of shame from the grandfather and granddaughter.  Witnesses play an important role in keeping the memory of the ceremony alive. The focus here, even if involving representatives of the Bank of Montreal, is on the Heiltsuk taking action to relieve the harm caused by others (my point is that the job of repairing and restoring is carried not only by the ‘person who did the harm’, but also of the full community in which the member is embedded).  The work of healing from the injury is not confined to the person who did the injury.
  • The ceremony seemed designed not with the primary goal of ‘punishing’ the bank, but with the goal of healing and repair.   It presumes that a piece of this means attending to the work of ongoing relationships (ie. many people will still have their money in the bank…so what is needed to repair trust?).  This ceremony does not wash the stain off the bank members (as far as I can tell).  It is focused on repair.  But at the same time, it makes a space for the bank to participate in doing their own acts of restoration, rehabilitation, acknowledgement and repair.   Part of the remedy seems to involve drawing them closer into relationship rather than just pushing them away. The representatives of the Bank were gifted, blanketed, and given a role in the ceremony. The remedy, in effect, is one which helps those responsible for the injury to learn more about both the Heiltsuk, about the impact of the injury, and about what it might mean to repair an injury in ways that go beyond apology or monetary compensation (particularly if one asks also about the harm to the community)
  • Note that, in attending the ceremony, the Bank of Montreal was in a sense acceding to Heiltsuk law.   Maybe ‘acceding’ is too strong a word, but at the very least, they came to the Ceremony without being ‘required to’ by a court action, or contract.  Rather, they took their lead from the Heiltsuk, and agreed to come and occupy a role in ceremony designed to heal the injury done.  One might imagine conflicts over what reconciliation is or isn’t, but one can see in this decision an action that affirms the legitimacy of a Heiltsuk response.
  • the Washing Ceremony was conducted in the Big House. The Bella Bella Big house was newly reconstructed (after 120 years). The Big House is the venue for important public ceremonial and spiritual business. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/heiltsuk-big-house-ceremony-   It is significant and moving to see the new space (“a living space”) being put into action right away.
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Representatives from the Bank of Montreal take part in a washing ceremony in Bella Bella. They were invited there by the Heiltsuk Nation in an effort to repair the damage done when two members of the Heiltsuk community were arrested at a Vancouver BMO branch in December. (Shawn Foss/CBC)

This is an important case to think with and through.  It is one for conversation in the law schools, both between us as colleagues and with our students.   There are undoubtedly a number of other resources that could help us begin to think about this case as a helpful resources for responding to the TRC calls in our classrooms.  If this is a case you have been thinking about too, please feel free to add more links into the comments.   This is a story worth learning from!