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Handcuffed for trying to open a bank account while indigenous

[Maxwell Johnson, photo: CBC/Jeff Houstey]

Maxwell Johnson is a member of the Heiltsuk nation on the central coast of British Columbia. From time immemorial the Heiltsuk have set up frames containing kelp fronds in the sea, to attract herring to lay their eggs there, and they relish this caviar-like delicacy.

The market for “spawn on kelp” in Japan has become lucrative, but the government of Canada banned such sales, until in 1996 the Canadian Supreme Court found that the Heiltsuk had been gathering spawn as a trade good as well as for their own sustenance since before first contact with the white man. Therefore, it was an infringement of aboriginal rights to prevent them profiting from this trade.

However, it was not until June of last year that the case was finally settled with a payment of $30,000 to each adult member of the Heiltsuk Band, and it was not finally disbursed until December.

Johnson wanted to make some of this money available to his 12-year-old granddaughter, who travels a lot with her school’s basketball team. On December 20, he took her to the Vancouver branch of the Bank of Montreal where he has had an account for over five years. He wanted to open an account for her, expecting this to be nothing but routine. The ID he presented was his birth certificate, her medical card, and their “Indian Status” cards. In Canada, “First Nation” and “Indigenous” (rather than “Native”) have become the accepted polite usages, but the government-issued identification cards still use the “Indian” terminology.

The bank told the police they were “South Asian” so perhaps the employee was actually confused into thinking they were from India. All the employee told Johnson was that the numbers were not matching what was on her computer, before she went upstairs to talk to her manager, and then called for them to come up to retrieve their IDs, she said, but actually to be ambushed by the police.

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Johnson speculates that it was the $30,000 deposit to his account which made her decide he must be pulling a fraud. For whatever reason, they were suddenly handcuffed, and
questioned for an hour before the two police officers apologized and let them go.

Johnson says he was already prone to panic attacks before the latest encounter with the police, and that his granddaughter was terrified. The bank has apologized in general terms but not explained why the employee called the police. The police have defended their officers, who they say were from “diverse communities” (unspecified) themselves, but have not explained why it was necessary to handcuff a minor. Johnson’s inquiries into the possibility of suing for human rights violations came to the attention
of the CBC, whose report last Thursday caused some uproar on Twitter and elsewhere.

Senator and former judge Murray Sinclair, himself of Indigenous ancestry, says this case fits a pattern of racial profiling by businesses which he has experienced himself.

A protest Friday, with traditional drumming, and calls to boycott Bank of Montreal, drew about 50 people in front of the branch where the event occurred.

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