N.S. tackles racial profiling in stores: 'It's about a societal transformation'
Published Monday, March 27, 2017 12:22PM ADT Last Updated Tuesday, March 28, 2017 7:35AM ADT
HALIFAX -- More than a decade after racial profiling was identified as a festering problem among some police forces, it is now being addressed in another sector: retailing.
After years of complaints about retail staff who routinely follow, search, ignore, insult and provide poor service to visible minorities, one province has decided to do something about it in a big way.
On Monday, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission launched a free, online training program aimed at preventing a problem that has sparked a growing chorus of complaints across the country.
The 20-minute interactive course for front-line service staff -- described as the first of its kind in Canada -- has already attracted attention from businesses in other provinces and the United States, and plans are in the works to roll out a national campaign.
"As a proud African Nova Scotian and seventh-generation Canadian ... I am acutely aware of the problems associated with navigating race relations in our society," Rev. Lennett Anderson of the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia told a news conference at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce.
"The need for a campaign such as this is a desperate one ... It is worthy of our celebration."
The retail sector is Canada's largest employer, with over two million people working in an industry that generated $59 billion in payroll in 2015.
Christine Hanson, CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, said the need for such a training program was reinforced in 2013 when the commission released a groundbreaking report that concluded aboriginal people and African Canadians more often reported being treated poorly by retail staff than did any other group.
"In fact, people from all racialized groups, including Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern people, reported being treated poorly by staff far more than did white people," the report said. "In the focus groups, several participants commented on being made to feel 'lower class' or like 'second-class citizens' when shopping."
The report went on to say that aboriginal people, African Canadians, and Muslims were all targets of offensive language and were treated as if they were physically threatening and potential thieves.
"A person who is a member of a visible minority group is three times more likely to be followed in a store, and four times more likely to be searched," Hanson said.
The online program, called "Serving All Customers Better," includes a quiz about immigration and visible minorities. It also cites statistics from the 2013 report and clearly spells out what the law says.
The course also cites some examples, at one point quoting a worker who said: "I worked for a retailer who said, 'The eagle has landed,' when a black person walked into the store. I quit my job over it."
Examples of consumer racial profiling continue to make headlines across the country.
In October 2015, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario agreed with a woman who said she faced discrimination as a black person when she was confronted by a Shoppers Drug Mart employee who demanded to search her backpack on suspicion of shoplifting. The tribunal ordered the store to pay Mary McCarthy $8,000.
And in February 2015, Calgary university student Jean Ventose said he was racially profiled when he was followed by a security guard inside a local Walmart, apparently for no reason. He posted a video on the encounter on Facebook, which received more than one million views and 10,000 reactions in two days.
In August 2016, one of Canada's largest grocery chains withdrew its appeal of a human rights decision that found an employee of Sobeys had discriminated against a black customer in May 2009 after falsely accusing her of being a repeat shoplifter.
Sobeys said it reached a settlement with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission and would apologize to Andrella David, pay her $21,000 in compensation, and develop a staff training program on racial profiling.
The company faced a boycott by a group of 19 churches in the province. As well, Nova Scotia's first black lieutenant-governor, Mayann Francis, came forward to reveal that she, too, had been the victim of repeated racial profiling while shopping.
At the time, Francis said Nova Scotia was in a state of denial when it came to racial profiling, saying she had often been the victim of "shopping while black" since she left her viceregal post in 2012.
"It does not matter how successful you are, it still can happen to you," said Francis, who had previously served as CEO of the province's human rights commission.
"It's just so wrong and so hurtful and I know how I feel when I'm followed in the stores ... They're stalking you."
Earlier in the year, the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to educate its staff about racial profiling as part of a settlement in the case of a now-deceased Nova Scotia grandmother allegedly accused of shoplifting a rug from a Zellers outlet in 2008.
Anderson, the pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Hammonds Plains, N.S., said the new online course in Nova Scotia marks a big step forward for visible minorities.
"Today, we are engaging in a courageous conversation," he said. "We have decided that it's time to confront major issues in our society ... Race is not a card we play, it's a life we live ... This campaign is not about behaviour modification, it's about a societal transformation."