A visit to a Vancouver bank for a B.C. Indigenous man and his 12-year-old granddaughter ended with the pair in handcuffs on the streets of downtown last month.
Maxwell Johnson, who has been a Bank of Montreal customer since 2014, was looking to open an account for his granddaughter so he could transfer funds to her while she was travelling for basketball games.
But the Dec. 20 meeting at the BMO branch on Burrard Street, Johnson says the teller started asking questions about his banking information.
“She asked for ID so I gave to them,” he said from his home in Bella Bella, a Heiltsuk community on the central coast.
“She said one or two numbers didn’t add up … and she said she had to bring our status cards up to the office to get verified.”
After coming back down, the teller told Johnson she couldn’t issue a bank card because of the discrepancies with the status cards, and asked the family to wait in the office.
About half an hour later, Vancouver police officers showed up.
“My granddaughter saw the officers first, she said, ‘Papa, I wonder if they’re here for us,’ and I said I didn’t think so,” Johnson told Global News.
“Sure enough they came over to us, asked us who we were, took us outside and handcuffed us. They said we weren’t under arrest, but we were being detained.”
After some questioning, Johnson found out he and his granddaughter were being accused of trying to commit fraud.
“We had to prove who we actually were and where we were from,” he said. “They kept asking what our business was in Vancouver and at the bank.”
Johnson said he had mentioned to the teller his account included $30,000 he received from the federal government along with all other members of the Heiltsuk. The payment was part of an Aboriginal rights settlement package approved in June 2019.
It wasn’t until Johnson’s 20-year-old son, who was still inside the bank, got in touch with the Bella Bella Restorative Justice Department that the officers released him and his granddaughter.
“The police were willing to let us go, but it was the bank managers inside, I guess they wanted us in jail,” he said.
Vancouver police have acknowledged the incident as Johnson described it, and have apologized.
“We recognize that this entire situation has been upsetting and distressing for the two individuals,” spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said in a statement.
In their own statement, BMO said the matter “does not reflect us at our best.”
“We deeply regret this and unequivocally apologize to all,” a spokesperson said. “We are reviewing what took place, how it was handled, and will use this as a learning opportunity.”
Johnson said the bank argued his granddaughter was too young to have a status card.
In fact, all children are eligible for status if at least one parent is registered, and their status numbers are identical to that parent until they turn 16.
Johnson said a BMO representative reached out a few days after the incident and apologized, offering to do anything the bank could to make up for the incident.
“I told her there’s nothing you can do, the damage has already been done,” he said, adding he’s now suffering from increased panic attacks and anxiety.
“My granddaughter’s going to be scarred for life now.”
Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, said the incident is “upsetting but not surprising.”
“Canada still suffers from everyone thinking we are all very nice, but discrimination continues to exist, and for the original people this is a daily occurrence,” he said.
“I think there’s a need to keep the microscope on this so people are more aware.”
Visintin added cultural competency training is continually being updated and remains ongoing for all officers.
“The VPD are always looking at ways to be better at what we do and how to deal with each situation, especially sensitive issues and cultural differences.”
The department issued a similar response in the wake of a BC Human Rights Tribunal that found VPD officers discriminated against an Indigenous woman while arresting her son.
The tribunal ordered the VPD to train officers to interact with Indigenous people without discrimination, with that training set to begin this year.
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