British Columbia

'I try my hardest not to think about it': 12-year-old recounts handcuffing at BMO

A 12-year-old girl and her grandfather are speaking out about being handcuffed on a busy downtown Vancouver street after being falsely accused of a fraud.

Bank of Montreal has apologized and called the Vancouver incident 'a mess'

Twelve-year-old girl Torianne and her grandfather were handcuffed by police on a downtown Vancouver street after trying to open an account at a Bank of Montreal. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The 12-year-old Indigenous girl who was handcuffed and then detained for 45 minutes by the Vancouver Police Department on a downtown street Dec. 20 after trying to open an account at the Bank of Montreal says she doesn't even want to think about what happened anymore.

"I was scared," Torianne said Monday. "The whole thing being handcuffed, after all the identification we showed that we are who we are."

CBC News has decided not to publish the girl's last name.

"I try my hardest not to think about it," she said from a Vancouver lawyer's office.

Her grandfather, Maxwell Johnson, is looking into a human rights case that would address both the police and BMO's actions.

Torianne says that when she saw the police inside the bank, she got nervous.

"I kinda figured they thought we were trying to do something," she said.

Police detained the two after a BMO employee called 911. The employee had difficulty validating their identification — government-issued Indian Status cards — according to Cameron Fowler, president of personal banking, BMO Financial Group.

Johnson said Torianne's status card was an older iteration of the card and had a clerical error — two digits on the card were reversed.

The bank has apologized, and the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner is now investigating the police department's detention and restraining of the pair.

Torianne and her grandfather are now fearful of police and of banks, but in particular of the Bank of Montreal, even just driving past it, he said.

Both Johnson and his granddaughter live in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella, located on B.C.'s Central Coast. The Heiltsuk Tribal Council Chief Marilyn Slett says she was shocked to hear about what happened.

Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter were using government-issued Indian Status cards similar to those above — which the bank employee had difficulty validating — and a B.C. health card. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"I couldn't believe it actually happened," Slett said. "it was too unreal to believe," she added.

She also added that Indigenous people experience subtle racism everyday, but says this was an exception. 

"This is the extreme, but certainly what led the bank to make that call was racial profiling — was the stereotypes of Indigenous people," Slett said.

Reminiscent of residential school

Johnson said the whole incident traumatized him and his granddaughter and brought back memories of Indigenous people being taken away as children by the RCMP.

"It's unbelievable. It just brought back memories of handcuffing younger kids at residential school," Johnson said.

He said Police Chief Adam Palmer was wrong to say police had the right to handcuff the two.

"We were calm, we were not making any fuss or anything — if it was non-native grandfather and granddaughter, I don't think they would have done that," he said. 

He is confident the police and the bank were racially profiling them. 

Torianne said she was trying to open a bank account so that her grandfather could e-transfer money to her when she is on the road during basketball games and cultural events.

Both Johnson and Torianne are now undergoing counselling to deal with the trauma they say this situation has caused. 

Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter say they are trying to find ways to deal with anxiety, fear of police and of banks since the incident. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Note: This story has been updated to include a description of Torianne's status card.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is an ​award-winning investigative journalist. She is the host of Land Back, a six-part CBC British Columbia original podcast that uncovers land theft and land reclamation in Canada. Sterritt is known for her impactful journalism on the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in Canada. She is a proud member of the Gitxsan Nation.