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‘Made me feel empty’: Indigenous Muslim man files human rights complaint against TD Bank

Click to play video: 'Human rights complaint filed in Indigenous bank case' Human rights complaint filed in Indigenous bank case
WATCH: A human rights complaint has been filed on behalf of a Heiltsuk First Nation man, who says he was denied service at a Surrey bank when his identity was questioned. The incident happened last May, but Sharif Mohammed Bhamji says incidents like these happen so often, he felt he should speak up. Catherine Urquahart reports – Mar 1, 2022

A First Nations man in British Columbia has filed a human rights complaint against TD Bank, alleging discrimination after an employee refused to help him open a bank account.

Sharif Mohammed Bhamji entered a branch in Surrey on May 5 last year, hoping to complete the account setup process he began online, but said the teller didn’t believe he was who he said he was because of his mixed heritage.

“When she looked at the status card, she asked me if I was Sharif Bhamji and I replied ‘Yes, I am Sharif Bhamji,'” he recalled. “For some reason and from that point I could kind of tell already where this interaction was going to go.”

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Bhamji, who lives in Surrey, is a member of Heiltsuk First Nation. He is also Muslim with east-Indian heritage.

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He said the teller asked him for several pieces of identification, spoke repeatedly to her manager, and eventually issued him a refusal letter and asked him to leave.

“When she handed me the refusal letter I crumpled it and tossed it back to her. I wanted to stand my ground so that way she could see that I was serious and I wasn’t coming with a fake ID.”

Two or three hours later, a police officer showed up at Bhamji’s doorstep.

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Bhamji said the police officer was called by the bank, likely because staff believed him to be using false identification.

The officer told him his reaction at the bank was not appropriate, but when Bhamji described what happened, he said the officer was sympathetic, given his own experience being “brown while blue.”

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Bhamji said he felt validated by the officer’s comments.

“With what the police said to me, I felt that I needed to take some action,” he told Global News. “It made me feel excluded. I felt like I didn’t belong. It made me feel empty.”

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Bhamji’s complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission was filed this month.

“I didn’t want an internal investigation, I wanted it to be public so that they can be held accountable for their actions,” he explained.

“Hopefully one day the load is lighter for my daughter and she doesn’t have to go through as much as I do, and same with my son.”

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In a written statement, TD Bank said it was “troubled to hear about Mr. Bhamji’s experience” and acknowledged “the hurt that was caused.”

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“We have reached out to make a personal apology, to hear more about his experience, and to assure him that we are taking this matter very seriously and will be conducting a full review of what took place,” wrote Ryan-Sang Lee, a Vancouver-based manger for TD corporate and public affairs.

“We recognize the reality of systemic racism and the courage it takes to speak out. We will respectfully engage and cooperate with the Canadian Human Rights Commission process.”

Read more: ‘Overdue’: First Nations man detained by Vancouver police welcomes revised handcuffing policy

Bhamji is the second member of Heiltsuk First Nation to file a complaint against against a Canadian bank.

On Dec. 20, 2019, Maxwell Johnson and 12-year-old granddaughter Tori-Anne were arrested at a Vancouver Bank of Montreal branch while trying to open a bank account.

Johnson filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal in 2020, alleging race-based discrimination by the bank and racial profiling by police that led to their handcuffing and detention.

At the time, the Vancouver Police Department issued a statement calling the circumstances “regrettable,” and understandably traumatic for the family. It later updated its handcuffing policies.

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In an interview, Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett said the entire Heiltsuk nation was “disturbed, concerned, upset, shocked” to learn about what Bhamji’s experience, particularly so soon after what happened to Johnson.

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“It’s really apparent that financial institutions in Canada need to acknowledge the systemic racial biases within the institutions,” she said. “Clearly there needs to be a lot more work done around cultural awareness and sensitivity with Indigenous people in financial institutions.”

She said Heiltsuk leadership fully supports Bhamji’s complaint to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, calling the discrimination he and Johnson experienced “unacceptable.”

“Sharif went into that bank with proper documentation,” she said. “He came in with a secured [Indian] status card that was not accepted. This is primary ID. Clearly they need some training in what ID is acceptable.”

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