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Indigenous grandfather files human rights complaint over Vancouver BMO arrest

Maxwell Johnson and 12-year-old granddaughter handcuffed in 2019 arrest at Vancouver bank
Vancouver police officers arrested and handcuffed Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter Dec. 20, 2019 at this BMO branch on Burrard Street. File photo Dan Toulgoet
A member of the Heiltsuk Nation and his 12-year-old granddaughter have filed complaints with the BC Human Rights Tribunal and the Canadian Human Rights Commission after they were arrested and handcuffed in December 2019 at a downtown Vancouver Bank of Montreal.

The complaints by Maxwell Johnson and Torianne Tweedie were announced Monday in a news release that included the transcript of the 911 call from the bank and subsequent police report of the Dec. 20, 2019 arrest.

“Human rights tribunals need to hold institutions accountable for systemic racism,” said Johnson in the release from the Heiltsuk Nation.

“Visible minorities are under constant threat of racial profiling by organizations, and discrimination by police. We are filing these human rights complaints to seek justice for our family, our community, and First Nations, and so that other people of colour can feel safe.”

The complaints stem from a chain of events that began with the branch manager of the BMO at 595 Burrard St. claiming Johnson and Tweedie were attempting to open a bank account with “fake ID,” according to the 911 transcript of the call.

Details of 911 call

The manager initially described Johnson as a “white gentleman.” The transcript then jumps to Johnson and Tweedie described as South Asian, with Tweedie believed to be a teenager.

The manager then told the 911 call taker the bank contacted the “Indian government” to verify the pair’s Indian status cards and was told they were fake.

An excerpt from the call:

Call taker: “And are you stalling the customers?”

Manager: “Yeah. Yeah, we told them that we needed to verify the ID, uh, and so, that’s w-, we had verified it. It is fake. “

Call taker: “Okay. Okay, and sorry, you verified, um, that it’s fake.”

Manager: “Yeah.”

Call taker: “And sorry, um, why were [you] told by the Indian government to call?”

Manager: “I said, do I need to keep their ID and do you recommend that I call the authorities because they have fake ID that they’re trying to access, uh, this customer’s account has $23,000 in it, and they said, yes, to contact, uh, the police and keep the ID.”

Call taker: “Okay, and sorry, so who, who exactly said that?”

Manager: “I contacted the number [makes noise], what number was it, right here, it’s on the Canadian Government website in regards to verifying Indian status.”

Granddaughter placed in cuffs

That call led two officers to the bank, who located Johnson and Tweedie and placed them in handcuffs outside the bank after concluding they had reasonable grounds to believe the pair had committed fraud.

Those grounds were based on the branch manager’s information, including further details revealed in the redacted police report of the incident.

Those details said Johnson changed his phone number on the account the previous day, that Johnson’s status card did not match the one on the BMO database and that “Tweedie presented a status card to which BMO deemed it fraudulent since it was under a different name than listed on the public inquiries database.”

One of the officers believed Tweedie was 16 or 17. An officer later uncuffed Tweedie because she was cooperating with police, according to the report.

“Further, [the officer] confirmed that TWEEDIE was 12 years old and due to her cooperation, it was not necessary to keep her in handcuffs,” the report said.

The report said Johnson, who had an existing account at the bank, was with his granddaughter at BMO to open a joint chequing account for Tweedie. Johnson had recently deposited $30,000 in the account after receiving a settlement.

Police released Johnson and Tweedie after they contacted Margaret Brown, the justice coordinator of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, who confirmed the validity of the cards and the reason for the pair to be at the bank.

“Despite the suspicious circumstances, [officers] determined that no criminal offence occurred and the cards likely presented as fraudulent due to clerical errors from Indian Affairs [department],” the report said. “Johnson and Tweedie were allowed to proceed. Both were very cooperative.”

'A very unfortunate situation': BMO

The bank has since apologized for the arrest, and Police Chief Adam Palmer has said officers were acting in good faith. He described it as “a very unfortunate situation and we’re very sorry the way that this all played out.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board, said in a statement issued in January 2020 that he “felt sick when I first heard about this incident and I find it unacceptable that the Bank of Montreal turned what should have been a positive occasion into one that reinforces our colonial past.”

The human rights complaints filed by Johnson and Tweedie are against BMO and the Vancouver Police Department “to hold the institutions responsible for systemic racism, and to make broader social change.”

In the BC Human Rights Tribunal complaint, which was also released Monday, Johnson said he told officers when they handcuffed him that he suffered from anxiety and panic attacks.

“Seeing his granddaughter in handcuffs caused Maxwell to think about the history of residential school and people in his community being put in handcuffs and taken away from their families in boats,” the complaint said.

“During the interaction with VPD, Torianne was very upset and worried about her grandfather. She knows about his anxiety and panic disorder, and was worried that he might have a panic attack.”

The complaint further states that Johnson’s anxiety has gotten worse.

“After many years of working on getting better, he is back to suffering from anxiety and panic attacks,” the complaint said.

“He is back in counselling for his anxiety and panic disorder. Following the incident, Torianne tries not to think about it as it is upsetting to remember being treated like that, and watching her grandfather have to explain who he was and be handcuffed. She is afraid of the police.”

Arrest a clear case of 'discrimination and systemic racism'

Marilyn Slett, Chief Councillor of the Heiltsuk Nation, said Johnson and his granddaughter deserve justice for the pain the incident caused. Slett said the arrest was a clear case of racial profiling and systemic racism.

“Certainly after reviewing and reading the transcripts, it’s discrimination and systemic racism that led to everything that happened,” Slett told Glacier Media.

Slett and Johnson, who also spoke to Glacier Media, said they were troubled by details in the 911 transcript that first described Johnson as “a white gentleman,” then South Asian.

“They were pretty well confused about our race,” said Johnson, who is still a BMO member but added that has not been to a branch since the incident.

“Racism isn’t something we see that often here in Bella Bella, but when we go out of town here, our people see it a lot. And having to go through it at a big bank like that is not just right. It could have been handled a lot differently.”

Johnson said the officer who uncuffed his granddaughter was an officer who arrived on scene after both of them were in handcuffs. He said she was a woman but unclear whether she was in uniform at the time.

Vancouver Police investigation underway

Const. Tania Visintin, a VPD media relations officer, said in an email Monday the circumstances surrounding the situation, and the impact on Johnson and his granddaughter, “are regrettable and, understandably, traumatic.”

Visintin said there is an investigation underway that will review the department’s operations in relation to the incident. The findings will be submitted to the Vancouver Police Board in a public forum, she said.

“There is a separate investigation underway, with oversight from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, into the conduct of the members who responded to the 9-1-1 call from the bank,” she added. “Due to the ongoing service and policy review and the OPCC investigation, we are unable to offer additional comment.”

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