Maxwell Johnson just wants to put some space between himself and the Bank of Montreal.
The soft-spoken, Indigenous artist plans to close the bank account he’s had since 2014 after being suspected of fraud and handcuffed while trying to open an account at a Vancouver branch for his 12-year-old granddaughter, Tori, last month.
“It’s very hard to go back there right now,” Johnson, of Heiltsuk Nation on B.C.’s Bella Bella island, told APTN News Monday.
“I just want some time between me and the Bank of Montreal (BMO). I don’t want nothing to do with them right now.”
Johnson is still coming to grips with what happened to him, Tori, and his 20-year-old son, Morgan, on Dec. 20, 2019.
“It was unreal. But seeing my granddaughter put in handcuffs, and moved away from her so I couldn’t communicate, that was hard. She was crying, she was scared,” he said in an interview from his Vancouver lawyer’s office.
“Not being able to talk to her was the hardest part. The worst part was seeing her in cuffs. Both of us not knowing what was going on.”
Johnson said one of two Vancouver Police Department officers that detained and read them their rights said the bank “were doing a fraud scam on them.”
Later, Johnson said he learned the bank had issues with the pair’s federal Indian status cards and summoned police.
“My anxiety’s come back full blown. With severe panic attacks,” he said while holding and squeezing a small blue stress ball throughout the interview.
“Now I only go out if I have to. And when I do go out I have to have somebody with me.”
The bank told APTN last week it had apologized to Johnson and his granddaughter. The pair had an appointment to open an account for Tori and obtain a debit card.
Johnson confirmed someone from the bank called him after the near-arrest.
“The day after we got home I got a phone call from a lady. She wanted to hear my side of the story. She apologized a few times and asked if there’s anything they can do?
“I told her, ‘The damage is already done.’ I said, ‘My granddaughter’s going to be scarred for life. My son had to watch his dad and his niece get handcuffed.’”
The bank has denied the pair was racially profiled or discriminated against. It does admit police should not have been called.
Johnson, who had a large sum of money in his account, doesn’t know why it happened.
“I’ve been to that bank twice before,” he said. “They never had any issues with my status card. They accepted it.”
In addition to his band and status card, Johnson said he showed the bank employee his birth certificate.
“She told me there was a couple numbers that didn’t add up on there,” he said, adding the employee said the granddaughter couldn’t get a bank card at this time and the two should follow her upstairs to get their identification back.
“We waited around for probably half and hour. My granddaughter saw two officers walk in and said, ‘Papa, I wonder if these guys are here for us?’ I kind of laughed and I said ‘I don’t think so.’
“Sure enough they grabbed Tori and myself, walked us outside, turned us around, handcuffed us. Told us we weren’t under arrest but we were detained and they read us our rights.”
Tori sat quietly beside Johnson during the interview with APTN and didn’t say anything.
Johnson continued: “(The officers) asked who we were and where we came from. They either didn’t believe we were First Nations or who we were on our status cards. They talked to my son and (asked) how he knew us. It was just crazy.”
READ MORE: ‘We are deeply sorry’: BMO exec says company sparked a situation that led to ‘uncontrollable circumstances’
The officers apologized to the pair but nobody from the bank did, Johnson noted.
“I said, ‘You better apologize to my granddaughter. She told me you were really rough with her.’ So he went over and talked to her, said he was really sorry, ‘Didn’t mean to be rough with you.’ That was it; we were allowed to leave.”
The chief of police has backed up his officers, but the police response will be reviewed by the Vancouver Police Board.
Johnson is still processing what happened and plans to decide on next steps soon, including possible legal action.
He said he is grateful for the outpouring of support from the public and his Heiltsuk community.
“Our community, our cultural leaders, will be doing a washing ceremony for us…to wash away the bad energy,” he said.
He said the bank characterizing the false accusation as “a learning experience” was “like a slap in the face.”
“If they don’t understand status cards or where they come from (they) should educate themselves about it,” he added. “It won’t take long. Companies could educate their workers on First Nations’ issues.”
What will take longer is getting over the way they were treated.
Johnson said he and Tori froze when they saw two police officers the next day.
“They got out of the vehicle and I thought, ‘They’re going to walk towards us.’ I told my granddaughter, ‘I get nervous when I see them now.’ She said, ‘Same here, papa.’
“I even get nervous when I see them back home. It’s going to take a while to heal from this.”