When an Indigenous man and his granddaughter were handcuffed after trying to open a bank account at a BMO branch in Vancouver last month, the outrage was swift.
Now, a former Manitoba cabinet minister is helping the financial institution deal with the fallout.
Kevin Chief, a longtime community activist, has joined BMO Financial Group's new national Indigenous advisory council.
BMO said the council will support further education and awareness, provide input on policies and practices, and build on its commitment to diversity and inclusion.
The move comes after Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter were arrested Dec. 20, while he was trying to help her open a bank account. A bank employee grew suspicious during the transaction and decided to report them for possible fraud. Officers placed Johnson and his granddaughter under arrest until they determined nothing illegal had taken place.
Chief's appointment to the council might itself be a sign the bank is sincere and committed to making changes.
"I had the advantage of having done contract work with BMO, but I had to ask myself two questions (when asked to join the council)... No. 1, were they committed to doing the right thing by Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter? And I believe they are," Chief said. "And, are they committed to tangible direct investment and partnerships with Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led organizations to create opportunities? And my answer is yes."
Last summer, Chief stepped down from his position as vice-president of the Business Council of Manitoba and has formed his own company, Chief Partnerships Manitoba Inc.
Its goal, among other things, is to help companies and organizations forge partnerships with the Indigenous community. One of his first contracts was with BMO in Manitoba.
Mark Chipman, executive chairman of True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. and past-chairman of the Business Council of Manitoba, believes BMO was wise in appointing Chief to the advisory council.
"He has many strengths. He is just as comfortable in a board room with high level executives as he is at a rally with young people and at a cabinet meeting with other cabinet ministers. He has a very unique set of skills." – Mark Chipman on Kevin Chief
"I have had a chance to work with Kevin in so many different capacities over the years, I don't even know where to begin to describe the depth and breadth of his abilities," Chipman said.
Most recently, Chief led a comprehensive Indigenous recognition pre-game event at Bell MTS Place that included the Indigenization of the Winnipeg Jets uniform and the singing of the national anthem in Ojibwa by a group of students from Seven Oaks School Division.
"At his essence, he is very passionate about creating employment opportunities for Indigenous youth," Chipman said. "He has many strengths. He is just as comfortable in a board room with high level executives as he is at a rally with young people and at a cabinet meeting with other cabinet ministers. He has a very unique set of skills."
Mike Pyle, a board member of the business council and chief executive officer of Exchange Income Corp., also believes BMO was wise to seek out Chief.
"He is such a pragmatic and open-minded thinker who has plenty of enthusiasm and creates momentum for the things he's working on," Pyle said.
Both Chipman and Pyle cited Youth CEO, a business council-sponsored program led by Chief, as a great example of the kind of bridge-building partnerships he can create.
The program pairs young people connected to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sport Achievement Centre with local companies and exposes them to larger workplaces. It also brings CEOs, including Chipman and Pyle, to the WASAC facility in an old North End arena and community centre.
"We have had one young person in the program who wants to become a lawyer who we would hire in a heartbeat," Pyle said.
"He is such a pragmatic and open–minded thinker who has plenty of enthusiasm and creates momentum for the things he's working on." – Mike Pyle
It was that program that gave Chief the idea he could do even more work to help young Indigenous people break down career barriers.
"The No. 1 question young people have when they're growing up is: what do you want to do when you get older?" he said. "So many young Indigenous people don’t have a parent or a grandparent or someone they know in certain kinds of positions... then it is hard to find those jobs."
Chief said he knows BMO is committed to creating pathways into jobs for young Indigenous people, as well as investments and more partnerships.
"I saw that," he said. "I do believe they are sincere. I want to be there to help and guide them as best I can. I can tap into the network I have... not only just to make this right (for the the family in Vancouver) but to create opportunities for young people that maybe their parents or grandparents never had.
"If I did not believe they were sincere on doing that, I would not have agree to be on the council."
"If I did not believe they were sincere on doing that I would not have agreed to be on the council." – Kevin Chief
BMO has been recognized several times by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business for its approach to the Indigenous market and for understanding the business case for a diverse workforce and equitable supportive workplace.
The bank has committed to doubling its Indigenous banking business and its team of Indigenous bankers by 2025.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 at 7:32 PM CST: Final version
8:52 PM: Updates headline
9:01 PM: Updates headline and deck