Indigenous man and granddaughter, 12, handcuffed after trying to open bank account

Leyland Cecco in Toronto
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

An Indigenous man in Canada has launched two human rights complaints after he and his 12-year old granddaughter were arrested and handcuffed as they tried to open a bank account.

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Maxwell Johnson, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, visited a Vancouver branch of the Bank of Montreal in December to open an account for his granddaughter Tori-Anne.

But bank staff did not believe the two were Indigenous after failing to verify the authenticity of their government-issued Indian status cards. Staff were also suspicious about the size of a deposit in Johnson’s account, prompting an employee to call the police.

In a transcript of the call to police, released by the Heiltsuk Nation, bank staff alleged the two were committing fraud, telling police the two had presented “fake” identifications. The employee also told the dispatcher that Johnson and his granddaughter were “South Asian”.

“It gets so tiring trying to prove who you are as a First Nations person,” Johnson told the Canadian Press.

Bank staff expressed concerns after numbers in Tori-Anne’s status card didn’t match a database and they saw a recent C$30,000 deposit in Johnson’s account – part of an Aboriginal rights settlement – even though Johnson presented bank staff with his status card, birth certificate and client card.

When police officers arrived, they put both Johnson and his granddaughter in handcuffs. According to a police report, the officers believed Tori-Anne was “16 or 17”, but removed the handcuffs after they realized she was 12.

Johnson has accused the Vancouver police department and the Bank of Montreal of racism in complaints at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

“It’s affected me quite a bit,” said Johnson. “When this happened to us, my anxiety just went through the roof. I started counselling again. It’s affected my motivation, my thought process, quite a bit of stuff.”

The bank and Vancouver police have apologized for the incident. The bank has created an Indigenous advisory council and new training for staff. Vancouver police said they are reviewing current policy, but both organizations deny the incident that race was involved.

Members of the Heiltsuk Nation, however, say Johnson is owed justice.

“From the BMO manager deciding our members didn’t belong, to the 911 call to police, to the cuffing, detention and questioning of Max and his granddaughter about how they came to be at the bank, this was a clear case of racial profiling and systemic racism,” Marilyn Slett, chief councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, said in a statement.

“Max and his granddaughter deserve justice for the pain this incident caused, and BMO and the VPD must take steps to ensure this never happens again.”