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Indigenous grandfather, granddaughter reach settlement over Vancouver BMO handcuffing

Maxwell Johnson: ‘It's been a long two years of litigation with BMO, and I'm really happy we're coming to a conclusion to all of this’
Maxwell Johnson and Heiltsuk Nation Chief Marilyn Slett spoke to reporters Thursday outside the Vancouver BMO branch where Johnson and his granddaughter were handcuffed in December 2019.

A Heiltsuk Nation man says he has reached a settlement with the Bank of Montreal after he and his then-12-year-old granddaughter were suspected of fraud and handcuffed by police in 2019 outside one of the bank’s branches in downtown Vancouver.

The settlement includes money and an apology, along with training for BMO staff on Indigenous culture and installing an art piece made by Maxwell Johnson in the branch on Burrard Street, with copies to be displayed in other B.C. branches where Heiltsuk members have accounts.

“It's been a long two years of litigation with BMO, and I'm really happy we're coming to a conclusion to all of this,” said Johnson Thursday, standing in a hoodie and shorts near the same spot where he was arrested by two Vancouver police officers Dec. 20, 2019.

“It's been a very hard two years not only for myself, but for my granddaughter and my son.”

Security video of the arrest of Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter on Dec. 20, 2019 outside the BMO branch on Burrard Street. Screenshot courtesy Heiltsuk Nation

Handcuffed on sidewalk

On the day of the arrest, Johnson was attempting to open a joint account with his granddaughter after recently depositing $30,000 in his existing account, which he closed Thursday before speaking to reporters.

The branch manager didn’t believe the pair’s purpose at the bank, suspected they were attempting to commit fraud and contacted police. Johnson and his granddaughter were led outside by the constables and handcuffed on a sidewalk.

A retired judge tasked with reviewing the high-profile case, which made headlines nationally and internationally, recently ruled the two officers committed misconduct by “recklessly using unnecessary force” in arresting the pair.

'Very unfortunate situation'

BMO has since apologized for the arrest, and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer previously 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.”

In an emailed statement Friday, Jeff Roman, director of enterprise and Canadian media relations for BMO, said: "We are pleased that we have reached a settlement with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter. This was an important step for BMO toward reconciliation and we hope that the Johnsons reach the resolution and closure they deserve."

Johnson joined Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett Thursday in announcing the settlement. His granddaughter stood by on the sidewalk with other members of the Heiltsuk Nation, who participated in drumming songs prior to the news conference.

“Today is a milestone for them to be able to bring some closure to what has been a really hard journey for them to carry,” Slett told reporters.

“Although they've reached a settlement, the healing will definitely continue with the community [in Bella Bella] and with Max and his family.”

Johnson's art piece in bank

Details of the settlement:

• A monetary payment from BMO to Johnson and his granddaughter.

• A private apology ceremony in Johnson’s home community of Bella Bella.

• The bank’s branch on Burrard Street and others in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Prince Rupert and Victoria — where other Heiltsuk members have accounts — will display an art piece made by Johnson.

• BMO will install territorial acknowledgement plaques in the same branches, and look to add more in branches across Canada.

• BMO has updated internal policies and procedures for how Indigenous status cards are handled and created a bank-wide course on Indigenous culture for staff; more than 25,000 employees have completed the course.

• The settlement also includes cultural competency training for BMO senior leaders in B.C. and the Yukon, establishing an Indigenous advisory council and making various donations and campaigns in support of Indigenous communities.

VPD complaint outstanding

The settlement ends legal action by Johnson and his granddaughter against BMO but a complaint filed against the Vancouver Police Department with the BC Human Rights Tribunal remains outstanding.

“Moving forward with the VPD, I'm hopeful for a good outcome, too, and that they learn about First Nations issues and take some sensitivity training on our First Nations people,” Johnson said. “That's all I want to see.”

He said the past couple of years have been difficult on him, noting he lives with a panic disorder, which has made talking in public about the arrest difficult.

“Being a spokesperson, I didn't want it but it just happened,” he said. “So I'm just glad to be able to stand up for myself and for my kids and grandkids and other people that are afraid to come forward to stand their ground.”


Note: This story has been updated since first posted to add an emailed statement from BMO.