British Columbia

Indigenous grandfather and 12-year-old handcuffed in front of Vancouver bank after trying to open an account

A 12-year-old girl and her grandfather were handcuffed by Vancouver police after trying to open an account at the Bank of Montreal. Both the bank and the police have apologized, but now a human rights case may be filed.

Bank of Montreal and Vancouver Police Department express regret

Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter were handcuffed in front of a Bank of Montreal in Vancouver while trying to open up an account on Dec. 20. (Submitted by Jess Housty)

Maxwell Johnson thought his appointment at the Bank of Montreal would be routine.

He's been a customer since 2014 and wanted to open an account for his 12-year-old granddaughter so he could transfer funds to her electronically when she was on the road for basketball games.

But at the Dec. 20 meeting at BMO's Burrard Street location in downtown Vancouver, an employee questioned the identification he and his granddaughter presented.

"She said the numbers didn't match up what she had on her computer," Johnson said from his home in Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community located on B.C's Central Coast.

Johnson, 56, and his granddaughter 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.

The bank has apologized for phoning the police. A representative told CBC News that the actions of the employee responsible have 'been addressed' but would not elaborate. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

He believes the employee might have been 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

He says the employee then told them to come upstairs to retrieve their identification. Not long after, they saw police walking toward them.

"They came over and grabbed me and my granddaughter, took us to a police vehicle and handcuffed both of us, told us we were being detained and read us our rights," Johnson said.

Johnson says when he saw his granddaughter in handcuffs, crying, he was heartbroken.

"You can see how scared she was … It was really hard to see that," he said.

Johnson says he believes he was racially profiled. 

No criminal activity

The Vancouver Police Department corroborated Johnson's account of what happened. Spokesperson Sgt. Aaron Roed said VPD officers detained them after claims from BMO that he and his granddaughter were committing a "possible fraud" that was in progress and identified the two as suspects. 

"It was determined that there was no criminal activity and no fraudulent transactions," the spokesperson said. Both were released within the hour and, according to Johnson the officers apologized.

Roed said whether to put a person in handcuffs is up to the investigating officer. 

In a phone interview, Roed told CBC News, "it is a regrettable situation, and we don't want anybody to have to go through anything like this."

Roed said the officers that handcuffed the pair had taken cultural competency training. 

BMO did not respond to questions, but on Tuesday it sent a statement to CBC saying it was mistake to call the police. 

"Although there were some mitigating circumstances, they do not excuse the way in which we handled the situation," the bank said in a statement to CBC News. 

A BMO representative said "mitigating circumstances" would include not having proper identification and added that the employee's actions have "been addressed."

On Thursday, BMO sent the CBC another statement apologizing to the public and Indigenous communities. 

"We value our long and special relationship with Indigenous communities. Recently, an incident occurred that does not reflect us at our best. We deeply regret this and unequivocally apologize to all. We are reviewing what took place, how it was handled and will use this as a learning opportunity. We understand the importance and seriousness of this situation at the highest levels of the bank."

It also posted the statement to social media.

Johnson said a bank employee became suspicious of the identification he and his granddaughter were using. (Maggie Macpherson/CBC)

Johnson suffers from a panic disorder and says since the incident he has experienced severe anxiety, has a fear of police and doesn't trust banks.

He is speaking to a lawyer about how to proceed with a human rights case. 

"If I have to go to court to make this right, not only for myself but for every First Nations person that's been discriminated against by a bank or a big store or something like that, I will," Johnson said. 

Commercial racial profiling

Experts say what happened to Johnson is part of what they call a rise in "commercial racial profiling."

"The pattern tends to be that when you see a person of colour, the person is treated rather with a lack of respect, a lack of professional courtesy … and automatic assumption of guilt and criminal activity," said Fo Niemi, executive director of the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations in Montreal. 

He said in most human rights cases involving banks, there is an out-of-court settlement.

Carly Teillet, a lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says she hopes the incident sparks change. (Paul Joseph/UBC. )

Carly Teillet, a lawyer with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says the incident was a big misstep by both the bank and police that she hopes sparks change.

"I just can't imagine a situation where a 12-year-old girl trying to open a bank account needs to be handcuffed and is escorted out of a building," Teillet said. 

"It doesn't foster trust between Indigenous people and Canadian institutions. I really hope that the folks that are involved use this incident as a learning opportunity."

First Nations leader calls out BMO

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations meantime said in a tweet the AFN is demanding answers from the bank. 

"The AFN has reached out to @BMO  to express our deep disappointment and the need to set better standards for their employees. I urge @BMO  to publicly state what they plan to do to address this to ensure it doesn't happen again," the tweet from national Chief Perry Bellegarde read.

The B.C. AFN Regional Chief, Terry Teegee, told the CBC that the AFN is pushing for training for the bank employees that decided to call the police on the 12-year-old girl and the grandfather. 

"I think the bank, BMO, should be ashamed of themselves," said Teegee.

He also said he hopes the Bank of Montreal also provides training to all its employees to further educate them about racism and Indigenous peoples. 


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.