British Columbia·Reporter's Notebook

Indigenous ceremony tries to right the wrong caused by handcuffing of grandfather and granddaughter

Angela Sterritt was invited to witness to a ceremony aimed at healing the damage created when an Indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old granddaughter were handcuffed outside a BMO branch after trying to open her first bank account.

A washing ceremony in Bella Bella bears witnesses to the story of Heiltsuk family

Maxwell Johnson steps outside of the Heiltsuk Big House in Bella Bella, his home community on B.C.'s Central Coast. He was the lead painter of the house front. (Angela Sterritt)

The culmination of a B.C. story of prejudice that went national has ended in a ceremony in Bella Bella and I was there to witness it at the invitation of the man at the centre of the hurt.

Maxwell Johnson, a 56-year-old Heiltsuk man, was handcuffed and detained in December while trying to open his 12-year-old granddaughter's first bank account with the Bank of Montreal, in downtown Vancouver.

Within hours of the CBC publishing the story in January, it went viral, opening up conversations across the country about the everyday racism Indigenous people experience while shopping, trying to do business or banking.

It gave some Indigenous people space to speak out about commercial racism.

The bank apologized and the Vancouver Police Department called the incident "regretful." Neither called it racism.

Maxwell Johnson said being in the community's big house brings him a solace that the incident at BMO disrupted. (Angela Sterritt)

Almost two months later, in February, Johnson, his granddaughter and his Heiltsuk community on B.C.'s Central Coast tried to put it all behind them at a washing ceremony. 

Political and cultural power

Bella Bella is a 2,000-person strong reserve that is culturally and resource rich, welcoming to visitors and politically powerful.

In 2019, his Heiltsuk Nation received a $75-million settlement from Canada after a court case found that the Heitsuk had the Aboriginal right to commercially harvest herring spawn on kelp. Johnson and every Bella Bella member received compensation in the order of $30,000 in December — a sum he thinks could have triggered the BMO employee to suspect him of fraud and call 911. 

The community has also fought to keep their culture alive. Since the federal government's ban on potlatches was lifted in 1951, Pauline Waterfall, an elder, helped revitalize it and other ceremonies that had been outlawed during colonization.

One of those was the washing ceremony, a purification practice to help restore one's balance after an accident, or from trauma.

Waterfall refers to it as "to hailhsistut" or to turn things around and make them right once more.

She and Heiltsuk hereditary leaders decided to hold a washing ceremony for Johnson after noticing he and his granddaughter were deeply affected by the event.

A culture at odds with journalism 

As someone who broke the story and in turn brought awareness to the hurt Johnson, his granddaughter and the community went through, the Heiltsuk people invited me to the ceremony. It also invited scholars, lawyers and health care professionals, as well as BMO representatives.

The bank brought 15 executives to the ceremony, chartering two planes to Bella Bella.

Johnson's granddaughter ToriAnn was also handcuffed at the BMO branch on a busy Vancouver street. She was part of her Heiltsuk community's washing ceremony to help heal from the trauma the incident caused. (Shawn Foss)

While the washing ceremony is largely about leaving trauma behind, it is also about telling the story in a public setting, where witnesses observe and later impart what happened.

The protocol acknowledges those who witnessed and supported the victims with gifts.

The BMO executives were blanketed and taken around the fire several times — a demonstration of them witnessing the ceremony. But it also allowed others to witness who they were and that they came.

I was not expecting to be draped in a button blanket and ceremonial apron by the community as a way to honour my  role in society as a witness. As one who listens and documents stories, I was told this was also a responsibility and a connection to my ancestors and the future generations. 

Journalism protocols direct reporters not to accept such gifts, as it could be perceived as taking a side or even a bribe. For Heiltsuk protocols, it was about accepting my role as a witness.

Having these hard conversations about opposing world views is important in terms of the media's role in reconciling with Indigenous people. 

'Like a weight lifted'

Following the ceremony, I caught up with Johnson on a nearby island where his community is building a healing centre that he will help to paint.

I asked he if he felt better now that the ceremony was over.

"It really put my mind and my soul at ease," he said.

"I hope it helped to open their eyes to [the reality] that First Nations people and their culture is alive and it's strong," he added. 

None of the BMO representatives would speak to me at the washing ceremony, but one of the members of the newly formed BMO Indigenous advisory council told me that she hopes the incident will spark the education needed to prevent it from ever happening again.