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COLUMN | Do the right thing

Columnist Steve Smyth writes about the importance of doing good

By Steve Smyth

Last Dec. 20, Mr. Maxwell Johnson, a Heiltsuk man from Bella Bella took his 12-year-old granddaughter to a branch of the Bank of Montreal in Vancouver to open an account. What followed was a bizarre and surreal series of events that ended with both grandfather and granddaughter outside, on the sidewalk, in handcuffs. Mr. Johnson quite rightly reported the story and it immediately went viral.

After the initial news reports on Jan. 9, the story hit social media and it grew and fed upon itself until it became the lead story in newspapers and on news sites around the world. It took until Jan. 16 for the CEO of the Bank of Montreal to face the media and offer a true and meaningful apology to Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter.

The Vancouver Police Department, reeling from a tsunami of bad press, issued its own apology and on Jan. 15, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner announced that the Delta Police Department would investigate the events leading up to Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter being publicly humiliated.

It took far less time for media pundits and others to reach a conclusion. The President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, someone who never passes up a chance to weigh in, said “Indigenous peoples continue to face the debilitating and destructive effects of a colonial legacy of discrimination and violence.” Making the leap from a ridiculously bad decision by a bank employee and an even more egregious one by a VPD officer to “colonial violence “seems to me a bit of a stretch, but if this were handled properly, making that leap would not have been necessary.

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The fact that a corporation the size of BMO allowed this to get out of control is the result of either very bad training or worse bad legal advice. It took three and a half weeks for the bank to offer a meaningful apology when, realistically, three and a half days would have been too long. There is nothing that happens in business in BC that is not viewed through an indigenous lens either before, during or after any transaction and for the bank not to recognize that is beyond shameful.

The BMO CEO’s Jan. 16 apology came with a statement that what its employees did was indefensible. He took personal responsibility for the failure and outlined steps the bank was taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again. He also announced an Indigenous Advisory Council, representative of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities across Canada. All of which one supposes, will cost the bank a significant amount of money in travel, meetings, honorariums and advisors.

One can only wonder what would have happened if someone in a position of authority in the bank would have immediately said “this is wrong and we need to fix it” instead of going to ground, issuing half-hearted apologies and hiding behind legal barricades. What would have been the cost, I wonder, for someone in a position of authority to go to Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter with an honest and personal face to face apology along with a request of what would it take to make this situation right. Sometimes, it’s not only about monetary compensation, but about respect and doing the right thing.

Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter were treated in a cavalier manner and deserved so much better. This is a classic case of poor crisis management and one that has cost BMO a lot of integrity and reputation along with a significant amount of money. It could have been handled so much better.

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