British Columbia

BMO president apologizes for treatment of 12-year-old Indigenous girl and grandfather who were handcuffed

It's been nearly a month since an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter tried to open a bank account at a Vancouver BMO branch and ended up in handcuffs. A top executive is now calling the incident "a mess from start to finish."

'People are angry, and they have a right to be,' BMO exec Cameron Fowler says

People protest at the Bank of Montreal at Burrard and Dunsmuir Streets in Vancouver on Tuesday over a report that an Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter were handcuffed at the bank in December after trying to open an account. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Bank of Montreal president says the incident involving a 12-year-old Indigenous girl and her grandfather who were handcuffed by police after trying to open a bank account is "a mess from start to finish."

"People are angry, and they have a right to be," said Cameron Fowler, president of North American personal and business banking at BMO Financial Group. 

"We phoned the police, and for that we are very, very sorry."

On Dec. 20, Maxwell Johnson, 56, and his granddaughter went to a Vancouver BMO branch to open a bank account for the girl. 

After looking at the pair's identification documents, staff called 911 to report an alleged fraud in progress. Attending officers from the Vancouver Police Department handcuffed the pair and put them in the back of a police car before releasing them without charges.

Fowler confirmed the identification documents presented by the girl and her grandfather — a birth certificate matched with a status card, and a health card matched with a status card — did meet the bank's criteria. However, he said, staff were unable to "validate" their identities.

Maxwell at his home in Bella Bella, on the Central Coast of B.C. He says he is now fearful of police and doesn't trust banks after being handcuffed outside the Bank of Montreal. (Submitted by Jess Housty)

"We have many tools and practices for validating identification," Fowler said. "In this case, we couldn't get the validation done and we overreacted and called police."

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said officers followed standard practices in handcuffing the man and the 12-year-old. 

Palmer also said the 911 call from the bank described the alleged fraudsters as a 16-year-old South Asian female and 50-year-old South Asian male — something Fowler categorically denies. 

"That information is inconsistent with any information that we have regarding what actually happened," he said.

Fowler said staff have been reprimanded, but did not elaborate. He did not say whether Johnson and his granddaughter have been offered compensation. 

The incident has sparked intense backlash, protests outside the branch and condemnation from the mayor of Vancouver. The head of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has also called on institutions to beware of racial profiling.

WATCH: More than 50 protesters marched outside BMO's Burrard Street location on Tuesday

Protesters demonstrate outside Bank of Montreal

3 years ago
Duration 0:36
Protesters demonstrate outside Bank of Montreal

A police investigation has been ordered to determine if the actions of the officers who made the arrest amount to misconduct.

Johnson lives in in Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community located on B.C's Central Coast. He said he believes the employee may have become suspicious because he had $30,000 in his account — an amount he and every other member of the Heiltsuk Nation received in December from the federal government as part of an Aboriginal rights settlement package

BMO had declined interview requests made by CBC News after the story came to light, until today. 

Earlier in the day BMO launched an Indigenous Advisory Council with Indigenous members from a number of provinces.

Members of the new council include:

  • Chief Patrick Michell, Kanaka Bar Indian Band, B.C.
  • Regional Chief Roger Augustine, Assembly of First Nations, N.B./P.E.I.
  • Minister Anita Campbell, Manitoba Métis Nation, Man.
  • Chief Terry Paul, Membertou First Nation, Nova Scotia.
  • Chief Darcy Bear, Whitecap Dakota First Nation, Sask.
  • Kevin Chief, principal, Chief Partnerships Manitoba Inc., Man.
  • Chief Don Maracle, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, Ont.
  • Chief Ouray Crowfoot, Siksika Nation, Alta.

The Heiltsuk Nation, however, says the council is tainted by the circumstances of its creation because BMO denies the incident was a case of racial profiling. 

"While today's announcement would normally be a good first step, it's hard to put weight on this advisory council because it has been assembled so quickly — it feels very much like a reactive gesture or public relations effort," the Nation said in a statement. 

"They need to stop denying what actually happened. That's the only way to move forward."

With files from Angela Sterritt