British Columbia

Indigenous man and granddaughter handcuffed at Vancouver bank file human rights complaint against BMO, police

A human rights complaint has been filed against Bank of Montreal and the Vancouver Police Board after Indigenous man Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, 12-year-old Tori-Anne, were suspected of fraud and handcuffed while trying to open an account at a Vancouver branch of the bank last year.

Lawyers release 911 tapes and police report they say is evidence of systemic racism

Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter Tori-Anne say they are trying to find ways to deal with anxiety, fear of police and of banks since they were suspected of fraud and handcuffed in front of a Bank of Montreal branch in downtown Vancouver last December. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A human rights complaint has been filed against the Bank of Montreal and the Vancouver Police Board after an Indigenous man and his granddaughter were handcuffed while trying to open an account at a Vancouver branch of the bank last year.

Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter Tori-Anne, both members of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, B.C., were handcuffed on Dec. 20 after bank staff looked at the pair's identification documents and called 911 to report an alleged fraud in progress.

Johnson and Tori-Anne were using government-issued Indian Status cards, his birth certificate and her medical card. He said the employee became suspicious and went upstairs with their cards.

"I was scared," said Tori-Anne in January when recounting the incident to CBC News. "The whole thing, being handcuffed, after all the identification we showed that we are who we are."

Bank manager called 911 about 2 'South Asians'

Lawyers have now released a transcript of the 911 call and a redacted report by the Vancouver Police Department.

"I had an ache in my heart when I was reading it," said Heiltsuk Nation Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett.

Johnson and Tori-Anne were trying to open her first bank account at a Bank of Montreal branch. She was using a government-issued status card as well as a B.C. health card, which according to the federal government, is sufficient identification to open an account at any Canadian bank. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The transcripts reveal that a BMO branch manager called 911 on Johnson and his granddaughter, first expressing that BMO thought the two were presenting fake identification cards.

The manager said she was also concerned about a large sum of money Johnson had in his account — money he and all other Heiltsuk members received as a result of an Aboriginal rights settlement.

According to the transcript, the manager thought the pair were South Asian, estimating Johnson to be 50 years old and Tori-Anne a teenager. But at another part in the call, the manager refers to Johnson as a "white gentleman."

"I was pretty surprised that they said we were South Asian people with status cards, that just blew my mind when they said that," Johnson said in an interview from his home in Bella Bella.

Indigenous Services advised calling police, manager says

In the 911 call, the BMO manager doesn't appear to understand what an Indian Status card is.

At one point the manager tells the operator "we were told by the Indian, uh, the government, to contact the police." When asked for clarification, the manager states "I contacted the number ... on the Canadian government website in regards to verifying Indian status."

The manager then says Indigenous Services Canada — the agency responsible for issuing Indian Status cards — recommended they call the police.  

"The call to Indigenous Services Canada stood out for me," said Slett.

"A caller or a person on the other end of the phone, giving advice to confiscate the card and call the authorities was really alarming, and it's systemic racism, it's institutionalized racism.

"We have a long road ahead of us as a country."

Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller said the call to 911 was "a process of systemic racism." 

"Clearly, all members of society need to know about the validity of a status card," Miller said in Parliament, following a question from Conservative MP Gary Vidal.

He said he is reviewing the transcript and "if there is an issue with Indigenous Services and its involvement we will act swiftly."

In a statement, BMO told CBC News it deeply regrets the situation. Since the incident, the bank said it had created an Indigenous advisory council and conducted cultural sensitivity training with its staff. 

The Vancouver police, in a statement to CBC, said "the circumstances surrounding this situation, and the impact on Mr. Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter, are regrettable and, understandably, traumatic."

Police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin added that a policy review, in relation to the incident, is underway. It will be submitted to the Vancouver Police Board in a public forum.

There is a separate investigation underway, with oversight from the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, into the conduct of the officers who responded to the 911 call from the bank.

Police report provides 4 reasons for suspicions

In January, BMO executive Cameron Fowler told CBC that the BMO employee called 911 because of a clerical error on Tori-Anne's Indian Status card, which Johnson has corroborated.

Her card had two numbers switched on the card, an error that has since been fixed by Indigenous Services Canada.

The police report outlines four reasons why the branch manager found the attempt to open a new account "suspicious": the clerical error on Tori-Anne's Indian Status card; a recent large money deposit; Johnson changed his phone number on the account the day before; and Johnson's Indian Status card didn't match the one on the BMO database. 

For Johnson, the 911 call and the police report provided little comfort as to why he and his granddaughter were handcuffed and detained on a busy downtown Vancouver street in front of the bank.

"I am still trying to understand it," he said.

Johnson says he feels nervous about the human rights complaints, but adds it's the right thing to do.

"I know this is something that I have to do for my family, and it needs to be done not only for our [Heiltsuk] nation, but for other people who are being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin," he said.

The bank has since apologized and the VPD has called the incident "regretful."

CBC's Angela Sterritt broke this story in January. To hear her speak more about the newly filed human rights complaint, and to listen to excerpts from the 911 call, tap the audio link below:

Angela Sterrit speaks with Stephen Quinn about the arrest of Maxwell Johnson in front of his 12-year old granddaughter. 9:38

READ | Transcript of the 911 call:

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea? angela.sterritt@cbc.ca

With files from The Early Edition

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