A representative for the Bank of Montreal (BMO) is speaking publicly for the first time since an 12-year-old Indigenous girl and her grandfather were handcuffed while trying to open an account at the institution.
The incident, which touched off allegations of racial profiling, took place on Dec. 20, and saw Bella Bella man Maxwell Johnson, 56, and his granddaughter handcuffed by Vancouver police, after bank staff were “unable to validate” their government-issued ID.
LISTEN: CKNW’s Lynda Steele speaks with BMO executive Erminia Johannson
Erminia Johannson, group head of North American personal banking and U.S. business banking, spoke with Global News and CKNW on Thursday, after the bank announced a new Indigenous Advisory Council.
“We made a mistake here. Let’s be very clear. I want to make sure that is understood,” said Johannson.
“We are sad. We are broken ourselves in the sense of saying this should not have happened on our shift.”
But Johannson rejected the allegation that racism was in any way involved in the call to police reporting an alleged fraud.
“Our validation process identified a serious issue in the actual identification. This is where we should have stopped. I will keep repeating it and say our mistake was picking up the phone and calling the police,” she said.
“We set off a spark — I’ll use that language — that had unintended consequences that were extreme in this case. And we are heartfelt, sad, disappointed, embarrassed and apologetic on this situation.”
Johannson added BMO had conversations with “hundreds of Indigenous leaders, customers, employees” and conducted a review of what took place, and determined the incident “cannot be characterized” as racist.
Johnson told Global News that he provided Indian Status Cards, his own BMO bank card and a birth certificate, but that the teller told him “one or two numbers didn’t add up,” prior to the police being called.
Vancouver police have said they received a 911 call about a fraud in progress, identifying a South Asian man and 16-year-old girl as suspects.
Johannson did not answer directly when asked if there would be any repercussions for the employee or employees who phoned police, setting off the “spark.”
“Right now that employee is not in that branch as we speak,” she said.
“We’re all accountable for this. We’re taking action and we’re going to get this right.”
Johannson said the bank has apologized to Johnson, but added BMO will have to “meet, talk, and do more than an apology.”
She also pointed to the bank’s new Indigenous Advisory Council, which includes eight Indigenous leaders from across Canada, as a commitment to review and improve BMO’s policies and work towards reconciliation.
Johnson, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation, declined an interview with Global News to comment on Johannson’s remarks. Instead he referred to his lawyer, who also declined comment.
In a statement, the Heiltsuk Nation said the appointment of the new council is “marred” by BMO’s continued denial that the incident involved racial profiling.
“Denying racism will not move us forward. This moves us backwards,” the nation said, adding it has yet to hear from BMO or the Indigenous Advisory Council.
“While today’s announcement would normally be a good first step, it’s hard to put weight on this advisory council because it has been assembled so quickly – it feels very much like a reactive gesture or public relations effort.”
The Heiltsuk Nation added Johnson would be commenting after the weekend.
Chief Patrick Michell of the Kanaka Bar Indian Band, the sole B.C. member of the new council, said he believes the body can have a positive effect.
“People are disappointed and angry about this and I don’t blame them. The Bank of Montreal has accepted responsibility for this and they’ve come up with a strategy moving forward,” he said.
“I’m looking at this incident, what happened — that’s yesterday. I’m more focused on making sure it doesn’t happen again tomorrow.”
Michell said he wasn’t sure when the council would start its work, but that the first priority would be looking at the bank’s policies and practices.
He also said there were no plans as of yet to speak with Johnson or his granddaughter, but that he was open to the idea.
Johnson has previously indicated that he may file a human rights complaint over the incident.
British Columbia’s Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner has also ordered an investigation into the Vancouver police’s handling of the incident.
—With files from Srushti Gangdev