British Columbia

How a community pulled together to support family traumatized by handcuffing at bank

After a Heiltsuk man and his granddaughter were handcuffed outside of a Bank of Montreal in Vancouver, the Central Coast community of Bella Bella came together to show the two they were not alone.

'His pain is everyone's pain,' says council member

Jess Housty is a Heiltsuk Nation council member and community leader who says Maxwell Johnson and his family are healing from the trauma caused by being falsely accused of fraud and then handcuffed outside a Vancouver bank in December. (Angela Sterritt)

The Heiltsuk village of Bella Bella on B.C.'s Central Coast came together when members saw one their own mistreated by bank staff and police in Vancouver late last year — and now they're talking about how it affected them.

Astrid Wilson, a 17-year-old high school student said the handcuffing of Maxwell Johnson, who was detained along with his granddaughter ToriAnn at a downtown branch of the Bank of Montreal after trying to open a bank account, created fear.

"It scared some of us, like are we going to be treated like that?" Wilson said.

Heiltsuk nation member Astrid Wilson called what happened to Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter unjust and made her wary of visiting the city. (Angela Sterritt)

For Heiltsuk council member Jess Housty, it was important that she and others help Johnson, his family and the larger community move past the anxiety the event caused.

"His pain is everyone's pain," Housty said.

She said, in the spirit of collectivity, her community empathized with his trauma and pulled together to support his and his family get past the pain.

"To understand that they're not alone on the path to healing," she said. 

Speaking the day after a washing ceremony held in the community on Feb. 20 to help heal from the event, she said she could see a weight lifted off Johnson and his family.

Opened up dialogue on racism 

The incident also opened up conversations in the community about the racism some members experience when they leave Bella Bella. 

Twenty-five-year old youth worker Howard Duncan said he moved back to Bella Bella from Vancouver, in part because of the racism he experienced in the city.

He said he didn't want to go to high school each day because of the stereotyping he faced.

Howard Duncan said the BMO incident forced him to reflect on his own experienced with racism, in school and while he is shopping in the city. (Angela Sterritt)

"If I'd be late to class one day, they'd be like 'do you have a hangover or have you had a doob,' " he said.

Duncan, who says he has been sober all his life, said the constant discrimination forced him to move back home, where he could regain a positive identity.

When he visits Vancouver, he says he is followed around stores as if he may steal something instead of purchasing. 

He said there need to be more conversations about racism in Canada in order for change to happen, and Johnson's story helped propel that dialogue.   

Taking a stand   

Duncan's boss at the Hailika'as Heiltsuk Health Centre, Cindy Neilson, who is a non-Indigenous woman said Johnson's story filled her with anger.

"It was really kind of a hard thing to sit and watch and realize the fact that simply because of where I was born that would never happen to me," Neilson said.

When she heard about the detention at the bank she phoned the Bank of Montreal and tried to find out why Johnson was handcuffed.

She has an investment with BMO and is now looking into switching banks. She also encourages non-Indigenous people to explore what she called white privilege, to learn from this incident and about how racism works in Canada.

Cindy Neilson is non-Indigenous, but has lived in Bella Bella for more than 14-years. She implores non-Indigenous people in Canada to look at white privilege and understand how racism harms Indigenous people in Canada. (Anegla Sterritt)

As for Johnson and his family, he said while he still has his up and downs with anxiety over the incident, he feels hope knowing he has a supportive community behind him and that people, including Bank of Montreal executives, are willing to learn more about Indigenous people's experience in Canada. 





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.