Indigenous man, granddaughter who were wrongly handcuffed reach settlement in human rights complaint against BMO

A settlement has been reached in a human rights complaint brought by an innocent Indigenous man and his granddaughter after they were falsely accused of fraud, and then handcuffed outside a Vancouver bank branch in December 2019.

To mark the agreement ending the complaint process with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, Maxwell Johnson and members of his Heiltsuk Nation drummed and sang traditional songs near the intersection of Dunsmuir Street and Burrard Street, outside the main branch of the Bank of Montreal in downtown Vancouver.

The healing ceremony took place at the exact spot where Vancouver police handcuffed Johnson and his granddaughter after bank staff called to report they suspected the pair were using fraudulent or altered First Nations Status Cards.

“That was really, really hard. Seeing your 12-year-old granddaughter getting handcuffed right in front of you, and seeing her crying, that broke my heart, you know?” Johnson said in an interview with CTV News on Thursday. “It really, really broke my heart.”

Johnson added that the experience is still affecting the now-14-year-old girl, who has anxiety whenever she sees police in uniform.

The pair was at the bank the day of the incident so Johnson could help his granddaughter open an account.

The settlement includes an undisclosed amount of financial compensation from BMO to Johnson and his granddaughter, as well as a private apology ceremony that will take place with bank representatives in the pair’s home community of Bella Bella.

BMO has also agreed to update its internal policies and procedures regarding the use of status cards as ID, create a company-wide education course so all staff and executives will learn about Indigenous culture, and establish an Indigenous advisory council.

Johnson, who is an artist, also created an original piece of artwork that will hang prominently in the lobby of the BMO branch where the incident took place.

“I had to do that for myself to let everybody know that I’m moving on from this,” he said. “And to show the world that we are working together to fix the wrongs that were done against us.”

According to the Heiltsuk Nation, the bank has also agreed to hang copies of the artwork in a number of other B.C. branches and to place plaques in those branches indicating which First Nation’s, or Nations’, traditional territories they are located in.

“Two-and-a-half years of negotiating was tough. It was hard on us all. I’m happy with where we’re at now,” Johnson said. “We’re just happy we’re getting some closure.”

BMO did not make anyone available for an interview to discuss the settlement.

"We are pleased that we have reached a settlement with Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter," an emailed statement from BMO said. "This was an important step for BMO toward reconciliation and we hope that the Johnsons reach the resolution and closure they deserve."

Johnson said he closed his BMO accounts Thursday as part of the process of moving on.

After the incident, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner ordered an investigation into the actions of the responding officers and Victoria Police Chief Del Manak determined that no discipline was necessary. In investigations involving police officers, officials from other jurisdictions are sometimes called in to avoid the local department investigating itself.

However, last July, the commissioner decided to seek a second opinion, after deeming Manak’s findings could be incorrect. At that point, retired judge Brian Neal was appointed to consider the incident and any possible disciplinary proceedings.

Last month, Neal determined the officers involved "acted oppressively" in handcuffing Johnson and his granddaughter.

"I have found that the officers’ actions in arresting and handcuffing the parties was undertaken without reasonable and probable grounds," Neal wrote in the decision shared by the Heiltsuk Nation in early April.

"I have found that no reasonable police officer standing in the shoes of the two officers could support such actions based on suspicion alone."

The First Nation and Johnson have invited constables Canon Wong and Mitchel Tong, the officers involved, to Bella Bella if they wish to apologize and participate in a traditional healing ceremony.

On Thursday, Johnson said neither of the officers has responded to the invitation.

A separate complaint against the VPD has yet to be resolved by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.