The Bank of Montreal (BMO) says it’s “embarrassed” after it wrongly called Vancouver police on a First Nations customer and watched as he and his granddaughter were treated like criminals.
Officers responded to a report of fraud on Dec. 20, 2019 at the downtown branch and handcuffed Maxwell Johnson, a member of B.C.’s Heiltsuk Nation, and his 12-year-old granddaughter.
The pair was then forced into a police cruiser.
“We should not have phoned the police department at any point in time,” Erminia Johannson of BMO Financial Group told APTN News Thursday morning.
“We are deeply sorry for the situation that took place for Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter. It is unacceptable.”
Johnson, an Elder and carver in his community, had an appointment to open an account for his granddaughter but the teller and managers questioned his identification and called police.
Johannson said that was a mistake.
“We sparked a situation that led to uncontrollable circumstances for which we… are apologetic,” she added of what happened at the branch on Burrard Street.
“We are deeply embarrassed by this situation.”
Johannson said the bank has apologized to Johnson and his family for putting them in that situation. She said the issue has dominated internal discussions as the institution seeks to recover and learn from the incident.
“We’ve also engaged in hundreds of conversations with customers and our employees, the Indigenous community, to get their wisdom, their knowledge,” she said.
Marilyn Slett, head councillor of the Heiltsuk, said the racist treatment shown Johnson was devastating to her and her close-knit community in Bella Bella, B.C.
“This deeply affected him and we’re supporting him as best as we can,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday morning.
“The community’s certainly rallied around Max and his granddaughter.”
Johannson said the appointment went sideways when staff had “serious issues and concerns” with Johnson’s identification. Instead of suspecting the grandfather of committing fraud, “we should have at that point stopped the conversation and not called the police department. That is our error.”
The bank wants to make “full restoration” in this matter, she added, “and seeks to make it right with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter.”
She noted the bank has apologized directly to Johnson and spoken with Heiltsuk leadership.
“There’s no question what they experienced was serious, it was harmful, it was devastating,” said Johannson, the group head for North American personal banking and U.S. business banking.
“We know that we need to do better.”
Watch the full interview with Erminia Johannson of BMO Financial Group
Johnson, 56, has been inundated with calls from reporters wanting his side of the story and has hired Vancouver lawyer, Anne Muter.
Reached at her office, Muter said it was too soon to say what legal action Johnson would take and referred calls to Marilyn Slett, Heiltsuk chief councillor.
“It’s been a hard and trying time. It’s nothing that anybody would ever expect that would happen in this day and age going into a bank to open up a bank account,” said Slett.
Johannson declined to comment on why it took the bank nearly a month to speak publicly on the issue. Nor would she respond to questions about the bank misleading the Vancouver or whether the teller or manager involved were disciplined.
The mayor of Vancouver, Kennedy Stewart, has announced the city’s police board would review how officers handled the complaint.
Police Chief Adam Palmer told CBC News that BMO contacted police to say a 16-year-old South Asian female and a South Asian adult were committing fraud.
He defended his officers, saying they were not racist because they came from diverse communities.
But Slett said racism was a fact of life for Indigenous people in Canada.
“We live and experience discrimination in our daily lives,” she said of this example of blatant racial profiling.
“With the era of reconciliation that our country is trying to uphold…drastic shifts need to be made around cultural competency.”
Slett shared that Johnson suffers from anxiety and panic attacks, and needed privacy now and time to process what happened.
She saw actions by the public of cutting up their BMO cards and closing their accounts as support for Johnson.
“I know they’ve connected with Max and his granddaughter and have been outraged by the treatment that they endured.”
But it’s up to the banking industry, Slett added, to respond to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and improve its values.
To that end, Johannson said BMO has speeded up its establishment of an Indigenous advisory council, comprised of eight Indigenous leaders, and scheduled two sharing circles as it works towards a “better cultural understanding of our Indigenous community.”
Correction: The original headline said that it took a month for BMO to apologize. That was incorrect. According to the company, a representative reached out and apologized after the incident.