They Sigh or Give You the Look: Discrimination and Status Card Usage


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Press Release
November 15, 2022

Study reveals that more than 99% of Indigenous people surveyed in BC have faced discrimination when using their Indian status card

(xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil Waututh)/Vancouver, B.C. – Indian status card holders face stigma and discrimination on a daily basis when presenting them at stores or to officials, according to a landmark study commissioned by the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

The full report is titled “They Sigh or Give You the Look: Discrimination and Status Card Usage” and was prepared using a comprehensive methodology to inform recommendations for government, businesses, and the media.

The decision to commission the study stemmed from the unlawful arrest and detention of Maxwell Johnson when he and his granddaughter presented their federal status cards to open a bank account.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, UBCIC President, stated “Status cards have long been the prime catalyst for the public expression of ongoing racism and stereotyping of Indigenous peoples. The media and schools have failed to educate people on the history of status cards and why First Nations peoples have them. These results will help us to begin educating Canada so that no grandfather and no granddaughter need ever suffer violence when lawfully going about their business.”

The findings show discrimination is a near-universal experience amongst status First Nations individuals who have used their status card. This experience is traumatic, particularly for those experiencing other compounding and overlapping forms of oppression, and shapes people’s behaviour for a lifetime.

The report also underlines the ways that traditional and social media portray status card usage as a platform for anti-Indigenous racism.

“I will never forget being handcuffed and seeing my grand-daughter standing on the street, crying and handcuffed,” stated Maxwell Johnson. “She was 12 years old, and we were just trying to open a bank account for her.  We both have to live with this trauma and the fears caused by it including what could happen the next time we show our Indian status cards. UBCIC’s report is an important step forward to revealing the discrimination Indigenous peoples experience every day.  I want to see governments and businesses step up to learn, educate, and eliminate this kind of discrimination.”

“The burden of educating people on status cards is unjustly on First Nations people when the government has been negligent in providing the proper and relevant resources to educate public service workers and the public about the legality and legitimacy of status cards as government-issued identification,” stated Chief Marilyn Slett, Heiltsuk Nation. “The end result is unacceptable and traumatizing incidents like those of Mr. Johnson and Tori-Anne who merely wanted to do some banking.”

 “Using a literature review, media analysis, online survey, and behavioural fieldwork, the study uncovered a near-universal experience of discrimination amongst status First Nations who have used a status card,” said Harmony Johnson, the report’s author, “Although this is an issue we all know about, there were no existing studies available. That excuse no longer exists.”


UBCIC is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

For more information:

  • Please visit
  • The Johnson family and Heiltsuk Nation’s fight against systemic racism includes the Strong as Cedar campaign ( which empowers Indigenous people and communities of colour to fight racism in Canada by sharing and gathering stories and highlighting solutions for change.

Trigger Warning

This report seeks to prevent harms and support positive change by illuminating discrimination experienced by First Nations people in the use of status cards, and making recommendations to address these harms.

In doing so, this report discusses topics that may trigger uncomfortable feelings and/or memories. First Nations peoples who require emotional support may contact the First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line and On-line Counselling Service toll-free at 1-855-242-3310 or through Additionally, the KUU-US Crisis line is available 24/7 at 1-800-588-8717. For more information, visit:

Photos: Melody Charlie, Nuu-chah-nulth, @firstnationphotographer

Illustrations: Bailey Macabre, nêhiyaw ayâhkwêw + michif/Ukrainian, @cedarsageskoden


On December 20, 2019, Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year old granddaughter, members of the Heiltsuk Nation, attended a Bank of Montreal (BMO) branch in downtown Vancouver in order to open a bank account. Mr. Johnson presented status cards as the requisite identification for this transaction. Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter were subsequently detained and handcuffed by two police officers outside of the bank after a staff member called Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) on suspicion that the status cards were “fake ID”, and was advised by ISC to call 911. Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter were released after officers contacted the Heiltsuk Nation and confirmed the pair’s membership with the Nation.

Mr. Johnson launched legal action against BMO, filed a complaint against the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, and filed a complaint against the VPD with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

Mr. Johnson and his legal team sought support from the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). The UBCIC Chiefs in Assembly passed a resolution in June 2021 fully supporting Maxwell Johnson in his and his granddaughter’s complaint against the VPD with the BC Human Rights Tribunal and approving UBCIC’s application for Intervenor Status in this complaint (Annex 1). Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, legal counsel for UBCIC, led subsequent efforts to identify existing research related to the experience of racism and discrimination related to status card use in order to support UBCIC’s intervention. Given the limited results of the search, this small, arms-length study was commissioned to pull together available information and gather new data.

This project took place over an approximately five-month period, commencing in mid-April 2022 and concluding in late September 2022. The study used mixed methods to better understand how discrimination may be experienced when using status cards for retail (sales tax exemption) or identification purposes, what form this discrimination may take, the impact of any discrimination experienced, and how First Nations individuals respond to this experience. The methods undertaken in this study were as follows. See Annex 2: Methodology for a detailed overview. 

  • A literature review: A rapid review was conducted by the National Collaborating Centre for Indigenous Health to identify exposures to racism and discrimination with the use of status cards. The search strategy identified 43 non-duplicate sources which met the inclusion criteria, and which were examined to generate key themes in the literature, as well as observations about the quality of the literature.
  • A media scan: A content analysis was conducted of mainstream media coverage about status cards between January 1, 1980 and September 1, 2022. The search strategy yielded a total of 51 non-duplicate stories which met the inclusion criteria and were analyzed to generate factual analysis about sites and forms of discrimination documented in these stories, and thematic analysis about how status cards are described and framed in the media.
  • An online survey: Informed by the themes drawn from the media scan and literature review, the survey solicited information about where status cards are used, experiences of discrimination (frequency and type), and behaviours associated with status card use. The survey was limited to eight closed-ended questions, one open-ended question, and three demographics questions. The survey was available via an open online platform, and was completed by 1,026 respondents. See Annex 3 for a copy of the survey instrument. 
  • Fieldwork: A behavioural study involving “secret shopper”-like fieldwork was conducted in towns and cities across multiple regions of BC. Assessors were trained and hired to complete and record assessments of their interactions with staff at store and service locations after presenting their status cards as identification or for the purposes of tax exemption. See Annex 4 for a copy of the reporting instrument used by Assessors. Seven Assessors recorded observations of over 103 interactions through June and July 2022.

As this study was underway, Mr. Johnson’s legal action against the BMO and the Human Rights Tribunal matter against the Vancouver Police Board were both settled amongst the parties, with acknowledgement of harms and associated commitments for change and transformation.

Also during the timeframe in which this study was being conducted, at least two additional media reports of discrimination and status card use in BC were widely publicized. Heiltsuk Nation member, Sharif Bhamji, presented his status card as identification at a TD Bank branch and was told by an employee that this identification was fake. This led to an exchange between the bank teller and Mr. Bhamji which resulted in police involvement but no criminal charges. Mr. Bhamji has since filed a discrimination complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In another incident, the status cards of three First Nations children were not accepted for coverage for required dental care, and the family was told that they needed to pay for these services in cash. They had no issue receiving services at another dental clinic using their status cards.

This report begins with a description of the study’s Key Findings, which are the common themes arising from the four methods of inquiry undertaken in this study. The Detailed Findings of each of these four methods of inquiry are then described. Finally, this report concludes with Future Directions, summarizing opportunities to take proactive steps to address the findings of this study. Annexes provide detailed supporting information, including methodological processes and limitations of the study’s four lines of inquiry, the survey and reporting instruments used in the two primary data collection methods (online survey and fieldwork), and the entirety of the literature review.