“I just hope it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Indigenous Grandfather and Granddaughter handcuffed by Vancouver Police while trying to open a bank account in Vancouver.
By Tamara Hansen, published on Fire This Time Newsletter, Volume 14, Issue 2, February, 2020
On December 20, 2019, Maxwell Johnson of the Heiltsuk First Nation and his 12-year-old granddaughter, Tori-Anne, entered a Bank of Montreal (BMO) in Downtown Vancouver, Canada. The two were planning to open a bank account for Tori-Anne. She is often out of town playing basketball, and her grandfather wanted to make sure she was able to access funds easily.
The BMO bank teller said she had some trouble verifying Johnson’s identification and asked them to wait. Soon after, police arrived, grabbing Johnson and his granddaughter and taking them outside. There they were handcuffed and read their rights. Tori-Anne began to cry. Earlier, when police had walked through the doors of BMO Tori-Anne had said to her grandfather, ‘Papa, one of these guys is for us.’ He had laughed, saying, ‘I don’t think so.’ Nevertheless, her suspicions had been proven accurate. Johnson explained to CBC news how he was racially profiled. One of the reasons he believes the bank teller may have called 911 was because he had a large sum of money in his account, $30,000, as part of an Aboriginal rights settlement between the Heiltsuk people and the government of Canada.
Johnson’s claim of being racially profiled is backed up by the fact that both Johnson and his granddaughter had two pieces of government identification (his Indian Status Card and birth certificate and her Indian Status Card and her medical card), which are all standard government-issued ID in British Columbia. Johnson has also been a BMO customer since 2014, and he had presented the teller with his BMO card. BMO has refused to answer questions about what issue the teller had with the numbers on the valid IDs. Johnson told Global News that towards the end of the incident, he was told by someone that the teller thought his granddaughter was too young to have a status card and that there was an issue with two of the numbers on her ID. This has neither been confirmed or denied by the bank.
It took almost a month for BMO to make full apologies. However, within all apologies, they refuse to acknowledge that the incident was fueled by racism. Erminia Johannson, a BMO executive, spoke with Global News on January 16. She admitted calling the police was a mistake and that they regret what happened. The interviewer asks what about the bank protocol called for the teller to call the police. Rather than answering about bank protocol directly, Johannson says, “that was a mistake.” According to the Global News article, “Johannson rejected the allegation that racism was in any way involved in the call to police reporting an alleged fraud.” She stated there was a “real issue in the validation of that ID.”
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer contradicts Johannson’s claim that there was no racism involved. In a TV interview with CBC, he said the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) received a call about a “fraud in progress.” In the 911 call – according to police – suspects were described as “a 50-year-old South Asian man” and “a 16-year-old South Asian girl”. How could this not be an issue of racism and racial profiling, when two pieces of their ID clearly indicated that they were not of South Asian descent (Unless the bank teller is so uneducated and ignorant that they believed “Indian Status Cards” are issued by the government of Canada for Indians from India!). It should be added the Indian Status Cards are photo ID and that the valid IDs present at the bank clearly display Johnson and his granddaughter’s faces.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart put most of the blame on BMO. In a statement, he said, “the misleading information provided by BMO staff led the officers who responded to take actions they did.”
However, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) does not seem to believe the way the Vancouver Police Department and Mayor are spinning this story. In a January 23 open letter to the VPD, the UBCIC writes, “We ask that the transcript of the BMO call to the VPD be made public because we believe it is a matter of public interest. The public needs to know what was said in order to have an informed conversation and dialogue, and to work toward collectively and concretely addressing racism.” The recordings have not been publicly released.
Speaking to CTV, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, Marilyn Slett said,
“The experience of racial profiling is something that we’ve all experienced in our daily lives, but this has certainly been the extreme.”
Slett added that Johnson is well known in his community as an artist and cultural leader. She further explains,
“when this happened to Max, it just really saddened everybody, and also, we rallied around him to make sure that he was supported.”
In Vancouver, rallies were organized in support of Maxwell Johnson and his daughter Tori-Anne on January 10 outside the BMO, and another on January 14 at Britannia Community Centre. In a Facebook post, one of the organizers, Kat Norris, wrote,
“How do we stand up for ourselves? How do we stop racism? It’s time for us to come together, to share our medicine, for each other, and for all those who have been mistreated by those who choose to believe in the stereotype that we indigenous people do not deserve equal treatment. TAKING BACK OUR PRIDE, USING OUR VOICES, EDUCATING OURSELVES TO OUR RIGHTS.”
In an interview with CBC News, Johnson confirmed that he is working with lawyers and may make a Human Rights complaint. Johnson told CBC,
“If I have to go to court to make this right, not only for myself but for every First Nations person that’s been discriminated against by a bank or a big store or something like that, I will.”
Roots of racism run deep: Canada’s ongoing legacy
Numerous reports and studies in Canada have investigated the impact of anti-Indigenous racism on the quality of life, health, and safety of Indigenous people in Canada. Some examples include:
• “First Peoples, Second Class Treatment: The role of racism in the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples in Canada” (Wellesley Institute)
• “Ignored to Death: Systemic Racism in the Canadian Healthcare System” (Brenda L Gunn, Associate Professor, Robson Hall Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba,Canada)
• “Welcome to Winnipeg Where Canada’s Racism Problem is at its Worst” (Maclean’s Magazine)
• “Systemic Discrimination Against Aboriginal Peoples” (The Canadian Race Relations Foundation)
• “Doctrines of Dispossession – Racism Against Indigenous Peoples” (The United Nations)
Of course, the report that came as a huge shock to many non-Indigenous people in Canada was the June 23, 2019 Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which declared that
“Canada’s past and current colonial policies, actions, and inactions towards Indigenous Peoples is genocide.”
As Fire This Time reported on previously (“Canada’s 152 Birthday: Why the National Inquiry Into Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls (NIMMIWG) is Correct that Canada’s Treatment of Indigenous People Is an Ongoing Genocide” July 2019 – Volume 13 Issue 7), despite strong backlash from mainstream media in Canada, the final report of the NIMMIWG based its finding not only on the inquiry they led but also 98 previous reports that focused on or mentioned violence against Indigenous women in Canada. These previous reports dating back to the Bryce Report of 1907, which sounded the alarm on the health crisis and high death rates in Residential Schools in Canada.
The deep rooted anti-Indigenous racism in Canada affects physical and mental health, imprisonment and incarceration rates, life expectancy, poverty, education, and so many other areas of daily life for Indigenous people in Canada. While the stereotypes held by many non-Indigenous people are that Indigenous people have tremendous privileges bestowed on them by the government of Canada, the statistics and reports outline a different reality unseen or ignored by many in non-Indigenous Canada.
In 2015 for the 150th year of Canada, Statistics Canada wrote, “In 2017 the life expectancy for the total Canadian population is projected to be 79 years for men and 83 years for women. Among the Aboriginal population, the Inuit have the lowest projected life expectancy in 2017, of 64 years for men and 73 years for women.” This means that on average Inuit women live ten years less than the average person in Canada, while Inuit men are expected to have lives that are, on average, 15 years shorter. However, many people living in Canada are not aware of these realities in their own country.
On top of this, First Nations and Métis people also face life expectancy rates about five years lower than their non-Indigenous counterparts in Canada. Today in Canada, Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women (Statistics Canada). An investigation into Statistics Canada reports on health indicators, incarceration rates, poverty rates, and other social issues all indicate that Indigenous people in Canada are literally in a struggle for their lives and futures in Canada. How many people are aware of these gaps in our standards of living across Canada?
This case is far from an isolated incident, and it highlights the ongoing legacy of stereotyping and prejudice against Indigenous people in Canada. Such incidents have severe implications for an individual’s well-being; in this case, the well-being of both Maxwell Johnson and Tori-Anne.
As Johnson works with lawyers to decide his next steps, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people must stand together with him against this case of racial profiling and violation of his human rights. It is important to continue to watch the developments in the case and provide support when needed.
Of course, dealing with the deep rooted and systemic racism of Canada will take a much larger effort. The government of Canada and other state authorities such as the RCMP and Vancouver Police Department gained their power and dominance with the suppression of Indigenous people – their human rights, their rights to the land, and their right to self-determination.
It is only when Indigenous people have control over their lands, resources, and communities that they will be able to start recovering and rebuilding after centuries of racist policies and unjust, discriminatory laws. It is up to Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to stand together to demand the government of Canada and all institutions in this country – from the police to the banks – respect Indigenous people and their rights.
Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01