What began as a simple trip to a Bank of Montreal branch in Vancouver ended in Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter being handcuffed by police over the holidays. First Nations leaders are condemning the actions by those involved as an “outright display of continued and persistent racism.”
Johnson, who is a member of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, visited the bank on Burrard Street on Dec. 20 for an appointment to open a new account for his granddaughter, according to a news release from the First Nations Leadership Council.
But the bank called the Vancouver police, reporting fraud in progress, due to concerns by staff over Johnson’s Indian Status card and identification.
Johnson and his granddaughter were arrested, both put in handcuffs and detained in a police car, before being released an hour later.
In a statement released Friday, the council called the incident deeply concerning and highlights an increase in “commercial racial profiling,” which is when a person of colour is treated with a lack of respect and professional courtesy and met with an automatic assumption of guilt and criminal activity.
“Indigenous peoples continue to face the debilitating and destructive effects of a colonial legacy of discrimination and violence,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.
“Addressing the nasty and persistent colonial hangover necessitates a concerted effort to address racism, both systemic and institutional, as well as societal. We are standing in solidarity with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter and all Indigenous peoples continuing to experience racism.”
— First Nations Summit (@FNSummit) January 10, 2020
The incident caught widespread attention online, including from NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“Racial profiling is a massive problem that Indigenous and racialized people across the country face every day,” a tweet by Singh reads. “Our government needs to do more to address and end systemic discrimination.”
Vancouver police corroborated the incident involving Johnson in an email to Black Press Media.
“We recognize that this entire situation has been upsetting and distressing for the two individuals,” spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said. “Based on the initial call, our officers conducted an investigation and cleared the individuals of any wrongdoing.”
In a statement posted online, the Bank of Montreal apologized for the incident.
“We value our long and special relationship with Indigenous communities. Recently, an incident occurred that does not reflect us at our best,” the statement reads.
“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.”
This is the second high-profile incident in recent months involving an Indigenous person and the Vancouver police force. In December, the Human Rights Tribunal ruled that police officers discriminated against an Indigenous woman while she witnessed her son being arrested. The Vancouver Police Board was ordered to pay Deborah Campbell $20,000.
Visintin said that officers receive “continually updated” cultural competency training, but called the incident a regrettable situation.
“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.”
BC Assembly of First Nations regional Chief, Terry Teegee called on all British Columbians to step up to work together and end racism.
“The best hope we have is to take steps to stop normalizing racist attitudes and actions towards First Nations children, families and communities, and create a more equal and just society where everyone can thrive and be healthy.”
A community gathering to show support for Maxwell is being organized for next Tuesday evening at the Britannia Community Center in Vancouver.