Heiltsuk man, granddaughter reach settlement in human rights complaint against BMO

·3 min read
Maxwell Johnson on Thursday outside the branch of BMO in downtown Vancouver where he and his granddaughter were reported to police for alleged fraud and then put in handcuffs by attending officers. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Maxwell Johnson on Thursday outside the branch of BMO in downtown Vancouver where he and his granddaughter were reported to police for alleged fraud and then put in handcuffs by attending officers. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Speaking on the Vancouver sidewalk where he and his 12-year-old granddaughter were slapped in handcuffs over two years ago, Maxwell Johnson announced a financial settlement has been reached in their human rights complaint against the Bank of Montreal.

On Dec. 20, 2019, the two members of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, B.C., tried to open a bank account at the BMO branch on Burrard Street when staff called 911 to report an alleged fraud after looking at the pair's identification documents, including their government-issued Indian status cards.

Attending officers from the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) put both Johnson and his granddaughter in handcuffs.

"It's been a long two years of litigation with BMO and I'm really happy we're coming to a conclusion. It's been a very hard two years, not only for myself, but for my granddaughter and son," said Johnson on Thursday.

The settlement includes an undisclosed monetary payment to Johnson and his granddaughter. Other terms include:

  • An apology ceremony in Bella Bella.

  • A work of art created by Johnson, an artist, gifted and put on display at the BMO Burrard Street branch with copies also displayed at BMO branches in Victoria, Campbell River, Nanaimo and Prince Rupert, where Heiltsuk members bank.

  • Territorial acknowledgement plaques installed at the above branches and possibly expanded across Canada.

  • BMO updating internal policies and procedures for how status cards are handled.

In a statement, BMO said it was pleased to have reached a settlement.

"This was an important step for BMO toward reconciliation and we hope that the Johnsons reach the resolution and closure they deserve."

Johnson said a washing ceremony helped him and his community come to a place of forgiveness with the bank.

"Part of our culture is to forgive," he said, "to show that we are working together to come to an agreement."

Heiltsuk Nation Chief Coun. Marilyn Slett said they are hoping for a similar resolution with the VPD.

"Max has extended to the officers an invitation to an apology ceremony in our community," she said. "They have not responded as of yet."

WATCH | Surveillance footage of Johnson and his granddaughter being put in handcuffs:

The VPD has apologized for handcuffing Johnson and his granddaughter. The two officers involved were suspended after a disciplinary decision said they committed misconduct in exposing the man and girl to "unnecessary trauma and fear" and "a serious perception of unfairness in their treatment at the hands of police."

Phone transcripts from Dec. 20, 2019, reveal that a BMO branch manager called 911 because she thought Johnson and his granddaughter were presenting fake identification cards.

The manager said she was also concerned about a large sum of money Johnson had in his account — funds he and all other Heiltsuk members received as a result of an Aboriginal rights settlement.

On Thursday, Johnson closed his bank accounts at BMO. He said he hopes the incident leads to change in corporations and governments, and a better understanding of Indigenous peoples.

"I don't think we have to prove who we are by carrying a status card," he said.

"Our people have been on the coast for 14,000 years — longer than the pyramids have been up. I just want people to be educated."

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