Human rights complaints filed after Indigenous man and granddaughter handcuffed outside Vancouver bank
VANCOUVER -- Human rights complaints are now being filed by an Indigenous man and his granddaughter after both were handcuffed outside a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver last December.
Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter Tori are both members of the Heiltsuk First Nation in Bella Bella. On Dec 20, 2019, they went to a bank on Burrard Street in downtown Vancouver, intending to open an account for the 12-year-old.
Johnson had been a customer of the bank for years. Instead, they found themselves in handcuffs, detained by Vancouver police officers, after someone at the bank called 911 on suspicion of fraud. The bank has since admitted it made a mistake, and apologized.
Johnson and his granddaughter are filing complaints against the bank and the police with the BC Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Johnson told CTV they are making the complaint not just for themselves, but in the hopes of helping other First Nations people and people of colour.
“It’s not right to be put in a situation like this, for anybody,” Johnson said, adding he has had to return to counselling for anxiety since the incident at the bank. “Doesn’t matter the colour of your skin or the nation you come from.”
Johnson said his granddaughter is also still affected by what happened.
“It’s something she’ll remember for the rest of her life,” he said. “The last time we were in Vancouver, we walked by a bank and she goes 'Papa, I just get nervous when I see a bank.' And especially with police too, she gets nervous.”
A transcript of the 911 call that has now been shared publicly shows someone who identified themselves as the branch manager alleging fake identification was being used, and saying they had called Indigenous Services Canada.
“I said, 'Do I need to keep their ID and do you recommend that I call the authorities because they have fake ID that they’re trying to access, uh, this customer’s account has $23,000 in it', And they said, yes, to contact, uh, the police and keep the ID,” the caller said at one point.
The manager’s name is redacted from the transcript.
Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Rola Tfaili told CTV News in an email the ministry is looking into the circumstances "surrounding this distressing event."
“If there is an issue with Indigenous Services Card and its involvement, swift action will be taken,” Tfaili said. “The incidents in question are exceedingly alarming. Status cards are valid, legal, and government administered pieces of identification and all members of society need to know and respect the validity of a status card.”
The complaint filed to the BC Human Rights Tribunal said the bank was not forthright in explaining an issue with Tori’s status card, and called 911.
“But for the discriminatory response, an identification issue would have resulted in simply a denial of issuing a new bank account that day,” the complaint reads. “BMO’s suspicion, questioning and decision to call 911 were all informed by a discriminatory line of thought that an Indigenous man with a recent deposit in his bank account and error on a 12-year-old’s identification was some type of a fraud.”
The complaint also called the detention and handcuffing unnecessary and discriminatory.
Johnson said he wants financial institutions and police to educate themselves about Indigenous people and status cards.
“The people that issued our status cards should be held accountable, too,” he said.
“It’s got to stop somewhere.”
Johnson also said he has been overwhelmed by the support he and his granddaughter have received from their community, friends and around the world.
Heiltsuk Tribal Council Chief Councillor Marilyn Slett said they are fully supporting Johnson and his family.
“It’s so courageous of them to stand up against discrimination and the systemic racism that occurred with them last year,” she said. “We believe certainly in this day and age that these types of things should not be happening to Indigenous people.”
Slett said she felt "quite emotional" reading through the 911 transcript and police report of the incident.
“I was shocked when I read the interaction between the bank and ISC, Indigenous Services Canada,” she said. “We have such a dark history with Canada and the federal government, that for this to happen in this day and age, there’s no excuse.”
Slett said the bank could have handled things differently, instead of calling 911.
“There’s things they can do, like ask a question, and have some dialogue,” she said.
“I really do hope that this can move us forward.”
In an emailed statement, the Vancouver Police Department called the circumstances of what happened and the impact on Johnson and his granddaughter "regrettable and, understandably, traumatic."
The department said a service and policy review is underway, as well as an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner.
“Due to the ongoing service and policy review and the OPCC investigation, we are unable to offer additional comment,” the department said.
The Bank of Montreal also sent a statement reiterating their previous apology.
“BMO deeply regrets the situation that took place in Vancouver in December 2019 involving Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter,” the statement read, and added the bank has established an Indigenous Advisory Council, and has introduced organization-wide education for staff in partnership with the First Nations University of Canada, as well as cultural training for B.C. employees. “We continue to seek ways to ensure we are doing better for our Indigenous customers.”