A 39-year-old Indigenous man and his mother say they went to an East Vancouver Walmart on Mother’s Day in 2019 to buy some patio furniture and food to celebrate the holiday.
Instead, they say they were racially profiled, arrested and, in the man’s case, beaten by Vancouver police officers, after a security guard falsely accused them of shoplifting.
The pair say they were later released without charges after presenting their receipt.
The allegations are detailed in a B.C. Supreme Court lawsuit filed Wednesday by Shane Robertson and his mother, 61-year-old Margaret Deneault, against the Vancouver Police Department and Walmart Canada. None of the claims have been proven in court.
The arrest left Robertson, who was on disability insurance from a traumatic brain injury, with broken ribs and a concussion, the lawsuit alleges. Deneault, 61, says she suffered an injury to her arm, along with trauma and humiliation.
The Vancouver Police Department says officers responded to a report of an assault against a security guard. It says Robertson was aggressive and uncooperative during the arrest, and a “struggle ensued.”
Robertson and Deneault’s allegations add to mounting stories of police violence against Indigenous people in Canada.
Vancouver police defended their decision in January to handcuff an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter after they tried to open an account at a Bank of Montreal.
In June, police in Edmunston, N.B., shot and killed Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, during a wellness check. That same month, a Nunavut officer was filmed knocking over an Indigenous man with a moving car door while arresting him for public intoxication.
“This is a pattern that keeps repeating itself,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said at the time.
Arrested without warning
Robertson and Deneault — who is a mental health addictions worker with custody of Robertson’s eight-year-old son — went to the store on Grandview Highway on the afternoon of May 12, 2019, along with the boy and Deneault’s niece.
After shopping for 45 minutes, they paid and started to leave, with Robertson pushing their bagged items in a shopping cart, the lawsuit says.
They say a security guard confronted them at the exit and accused them of shoplifting, but did not ask for a receipt.
Robertson told the guard they had paid and walked out to their car, which was parked in a designated spot for people with disabilities, according to the lawsuit. At that point, police were called about a theft.
Six VPD officers arrived in three separate cars as the son and mother unloaded bags in their car.
Four officers allegedly tackled Robertson to the ground and restrained him by forcing their knees on the back of his head, neck and legs.
They repeatedly punched and kneed the man in his back, head and legs, before handcuffing and arresting him, the lawsuit says.
Robertson says he did not resist arrest.
Officers then allegedly grabbed Deneault from the driver’s seat, put her in handcuffs and arrested her.
Both Robertson and Deneault say police never asked for a receipt or explained why they were under arrest.
Aaron Roed, a VPD spokesperson, told CBC News that police responded to a report of a man spitting on a security guard and assaulting another guard.
Police say the man and his mother were “very confrontational.” They say Robertson refused to answer questions and cooperate with officers.
Police tried to handcuff to him to “prevent the aggression from escalating” and to arrest him for the alleged assaults.
“He continued to yell profanities at police and refused to put his hands behind his back,” Roed said in a statement.
“A struggle ensued but the officers were eventually able to place him in handcuffs.”
Robertson was taken to jail for breach of peace and was later apologetic, Roed said.
Police say security staff chose not to pursue charges.
‘Resent and distrust police’
Robertson and Deneault are now seeking damages over the incident. In addition to the VPD and Walmart, they are suing two unnamed police officers and the security guard.
The lawsuit claims VPD officers wrongfully arrested the pair, and used “unlawful and excessive” force on Robertson.
On top of his physical injuries, Robertson suffered trauma and humiliation that has led him to “resent and distrust police officers and security guards.”
The officers also violated the pair’s charter rights by not citing the reason for their arrest, and the two officers who watched had a duty to stop the beating, the lawsuit says.
Deneault took time off work due to trauma, and is at higher risk of losing custody of Robertson’s son, the lawsuit says.
The security guard had no reason to suspect theft, the lawsuit alleges, and was “ostensibly motivated to stop and harass Robertson because of his race and physical appearance.”
Felicia Fefer, a spokesperson for Walmart Canada, said the company doesn’t comment on matters before the courts.
“However, respect is a core value at Walmart Canada and we do not tolerate any behaviour which contradicts this value, including racism and discrimination,” she wrote.