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A year after George Floyd murder, little has changed, Vancouver activists say

Last Updated May 21, 2021 at 10:30 am MDT

FILE - Protesters speaking out against racism and police brutality gathered in Vancouver on June 5. The protest and many others like it around the world were sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. (Isabelle Raghem, CityNews Vancouver)

Advocates point to wrongful detention of retired Black judge as example of how police reform is still needed

It's been close to one year since George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis at the hands of police

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – After a year of protests and calls for policing reform, not much has changed, according to activists in Vancouver, as the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis approaches.

Dr. June Francis with the Hogan’s Alley Society points to the wrongful detention of a retired judge as an example of how Black people are disproportionately subjected to violence simply because of the colour of their skin.

On May 14, 2021, Vancouver Police officers wrongly detained Black retired Justice Selwyn Romilly as he was on his daily walk along the seawall. Police were looking for a man who was causing a disturbance in the area, who was described as between 40 and 50 years old.

Romilly, who was B.C.’s first Black Supreme Court judge, is 81.

When officers realized they had the wrong man, they apologized and removed the handcuffs, but Romilly says it “wasn’t sufficient enough to keep me from being embarrassed.”

Francis says this incident is proof that despite a racial awakening triggered by Floyd’s murder last year police relations have not improved in the city.

“In terms of people’s understanding prior to the George Floyd event, I spent many years [promoting awareness] and most of it being rebuffed by Canadians when I tried to describe the fact that Black Canadians experienced systemic racism across the spectrum,” she said.

The high-profile incident in Vancouver led to a public apology from Vancouver Police. Chief Adam Palmer said it was a “dynamic, urgent call” and “police officers are human beings.”

“We make mistakes. We don’t always get it right,” Palmer said three days after the incident, adding “things unfold quickly in the heat of the moment, and that is what happened here.”

When asked if this incident has changed his opinion that systemic racism exists within the force and Canadian policing in general, Palmer said, “No, it doesn’t.”

Brian Seremba, co-founder of the B.C. Community Alliance, says it’s “unfortunate” that Palmer does not see systemic racism.

“When police chiefs in Montreal, police chiefs all across the U.S. have stated the otherwise … That means that all the statistics collected mean nothing because the police chief believes there’s no such case,” he said.

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The VPD did change its policy on street checks earlier this year. The B.C. government is also working towards changing the Police Act.

Community organizer Markiel Simpson thinks the general public has improved its awareness of anti-Black racism, “but there’s still a long way to go as far as institutions actually implementing long-term procedural changes to the way that they operate.”

For her part, Francis is optimistic about the growing acknowledgement of systemic racism since Floyd’s death. She’s seen it in the media, in government, and in education.

“I know there are some doubters,” she said. “But mostly, Canadians are beginning to understand that for Black and Indigenous people, particularly. But not just us. Racialized communities are, in fact, facing systemic racism in housing, in employment, and of course, the big thing that ignited this — police brutality.”

Though there are initiatives on the way, Francis has a message to all Canadians:

“We know from history that these changes are often short-term, performative. And if they do not go deep enough, they will not result in lasting change.”