A teen was held at gunpoint in a Vancouver bank 51 years ago. The Saanich shootout took her back

·5 min read
In this archival CBC News image, an employee closes the door of a Bank of Montreal branch at Vancouver General Hospital after it was robbed at gunpoint on April 27, 1971.  (CBC News - image credit)
In this archival CBC News image, an employee closes the door of a Bank of Montreal branch at Vancouver General Hospital after it was robbed at gunpoint on April 27, 1971. (CBC News - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Marian Rankin felt the cold touch of a gun on her temple as a bank robber yelled, "Everybody on the floor!"

The bandit grabbed her arm and ordered her not to move, as his co-conspirator emerged from the bank's vault carrying large, and evidently unwieldy, sacks of money.

It was April 27, 1971, and the then-University of British Columbia nursing student was only 19 — depositing her $20 cheque at the Bank of Montreal's Vancouver General Hospital branch in the morning.

At the time, news reports described it as the largest bank heist in the province's history.

The robbers stole $327,000, equivalent to $2.4 million today.

David P. Ball/CBC
David P. Ball/CBC

"I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is it, I'm dead,'" Rankin told CBC News. "It was just this most calm, rational thought.

"When it first happened, I almost separated from myself. I can remember thinking I was looking on at it."

'Really strong people, real survivors'

Today, Rankin lives in Chilliwack, B.C., retired after a career in nursing.

But almost a month ago — as she watched news of a fatal bank robbery shootout at another Bank of Montreal in Saanich, B.C. — she says she was taken back to that day 51 years earlier.

The June 28 incident left two suspects dead, and several police officers seriously wounded in hospital.

Rankin says she was inspired to share her own story after she saw an interview on CBC News with one of the hostages.

"There's a lot of really strong people, real survivors," she said.

CBC News
CBC News

Although no shots were fired in the 1971 heist — and some experts suggest last month's suspects may have been seeking a shootout — to Rankin, her experience five decades earlier was otherwise eerily similar.

Both involved heavily armed suspects who had evidently carefully timed and planned the heists; both were in Bank of Montreal branches; both occurred early in the morning.

What really jars Rankin's memories, she says, is that customers and staff were held at gunpoint — and left to face the aftershocks long after the police tape came down.

Archival photo/Vancouver Province
Archival photo/Vancouver Province

'Compassionate understanding'

At the time, Rankin was not interviewed by police who arrived after the bandits escaped in a getaway car (they were arrested the next day thanks to a tip from a priest who identified their vehicle).

Investigators only wanted to talk to bank staff, she says, not a teenager with a $20 cheque.

CBC News
CBC News

If it happened today it would be very different, said the executive director of Police Victims Services of B.C. (PVSBC), which represents trauma-informed workers in 95 departments across the province, both municipal forces and RCMP detachments.

Last month, police interviewed dozens of witnesses in Saanich who were held hostage inside the bank, both customers and staff.

And unlike in 1971, on-hand for those interviews — and available in the weeks afterwards — were police-based victims services workers specialized in supporting civilians impacted by crime.

"They were assisting with people, helping them deal with their initial reactions to what they had experienced," said PVSBC's Ian Batey in an interview. "Just like any situation like this, there likely was a wide range of reactions.

"People's individual response to a traumatic event varies significantly."

Archival photo/Vancouver Sun
Archival photo/Vancouver Sun

That was evidenced after the Saanich incident, when witnesses described vastly different effects — from the owner of a nearby laundromat who wanted to reopen his business after a stray bullet was found inside, to a bank hostage who said she'd been unable to sleep for days, and kept replaying the events in her mind.

On June 30, Saanich police chief offered sympathy to bank customers and staff, saying it "will likely replay in their minds over and over again."

As of last week, Greater Victoria Police Victims Services had opened at least 30 files for civilians impacted by the events, Batey said, a number likely to rise because victims services workers follow cases long afterward.

They're not counsellors, he said, but civilians trained to offer "trauma-informed" and "compassionate understanding" as they help victims access supports, and navigate the investigation and justice processes. These include ensuring people feel safe and can get therapy, to "pragmatic" help like a tank of gas to get home, he said.

'It could take you by surprise'

For Rankin, her brush with crime didn't lead to the kinds of nightmares, flashbacks and hyper-vigilance common after violent events.

Later that April day, Rankin says her classmates noticed something seemed wrong, but she insisted she wanted to move on and go shopping.

Such reactions are also part of the wide spectrum of what is "normal" after traumatic events, explained Julia Wu, who manages the call centre behind bc211 and VictimLinkBC, a phone and text helpline for victims and witnesses of crime.

Kevin Light/REUTERS
Kevin Light/REUTERS

Wu's non-profit staff act as a front-line directory to help victims find the help they need when they dial 211 anywhere in the province. They're not counsellors, Wu says, but they are trained in trauma support.

"There are individuals that can seem to move on quite quickly and really they might be fine," Wu said.

"Some people may seem like they're fine initially and then maybe later on they realize that it's impacted them a little bit more than what they expected."

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

Having a strong community or other kinds of support helps result in better outcomes, she adds.

Rankin's advice to anyone impacted by similar events: do not keep it only to yourself.

She says she wants those trapped in last month's events to know healing is possible.

"You're going to need to talk about this, and it could take you by surprise," she said. "So do the nurturing things, and reach out — don't hold it inside, because it will bottle up and hit you later."

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