‘We are deeply sorry’: BMO exec says company sparked a situation that led to ‘uncontrollable circumstances’

The bank wants to make “full restoration” in this matter.

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, a spiritual 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 added.

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 Slett.

“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,” Slett told APTN.

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 allegedly misleading the Vancouver Police Department 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.

Vancouver Police Department 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 also came from diverse communities.

But Slett said racism was a fact of life for Indigenous peoples 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 for action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and improve its values.

To that end, Johannson said BMO has speeded up the 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 bank, a representative reached out and apologized after the incident. 

 

Investigative Reporter / Winnipeg

Award-winning reporter Kathleen Martens covers western and northern Canada for aptnnews.ca. A veteran of the Brandon Sun, Sun Media and APTN Investigates, she is based in APTN’s head office, specializing in stories about property, women’s rights and community.

6 thoughts on “‘We are deeply sorry’: BMO exec says company sparked a situation that led to ‘uncontrollable circumstances’

  1. Bank of Montreals Johannson 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 the Indigenous community to get their wisdom, their knowledge” Wow. You are concerned about your bank recovering from being racist?? And you actually require help finding the wisdom to what, not be racist?? Is it really that hard that you need consultation? What a joke.

  2. The police should be ashamed too. Handcuffing a little girl while she’s already scared and crying. Just sad.

  3. I wrote the BMO manager a card about this. I said that more than an apology was needed, that compensation was needed to this man and to his granddaughter. They may need support (that the bank should pay for) to deal with PTSD and/or anxiety after this horrendous experience. I stated that I did not understand why on the call to police that child was stated to be 16 years old when the teller had her birth certificate and she was 12. Also, their ID consisted of Indigenous ID government cards, so now I wonder: why were they described as Asian? I suggested that the bank employees would benefit from anti-racism and sensitivity training. I said that this entire incident needs to be remedied before trust can re-built. I am not surprised that others from this same community cut up their cards and withdrew their funds. Respect needs to be a foundation towards the banks customers. I also pointed out that the bank teller could have asked for the customers to return later since some ID needed verification, or even have asked the grandfather to agree to put a hold on some of the funds in his account while the new one was being established. Calling the police was a horrendous response.

  4. I am surprised that those that have covered this story have not reported on the fact that BMO’s is Gold Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) Certified by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business and this recent event is in stark contrast to the principals and criteria required to achieve this certification!

  5. I “was” pretty upset that a bank would do this to these people. Once I noticed the race card was being pulled I became increasingly disgusted with the whole story.

    The empathy I had for the man and his grand daughter ended when I read that they are calling it a racist reaction from the bank and police.

    The only ones that see you as being different are you and your identity issue friends and followers.

    Enough with the race card.

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