September 29th, 2021, by Debra Febril, HRC Advocate
On October 14, 2020, I went out with my spouse and 4-year-old son to grab a few things for our new apartment in the big city. We had just moved from a remote northern community to Vancouver, so that I could complete a legal internship at Atira Women’s Resource Society. We decided to split the shopping list in half. My husband took the cart with our son and headed one way and I headed the other.
As I was shopping, I passed through the cosmetics section and remembered a couple of items my cousin said she was running out of. I found the special eyelash glue she uses and saw that it was locked up. I went to the counter and told the lady I needed help to get a locked item. She said ok, grabbed a key and caught up to me as I walked back to the case. She stood in front of it as I pointed at the item. She put the key in and then just stopped. She looked me up and down, then took the item out and held it against her chest as she said “Is this for you?” I said “yes thank you” and held out my hand. She looked past me and just stood there. I remember thinking to myself: why is this woman acting so oddly? A middle-aged white woman came up behind me to ask for something. The employee that was supposed to be helping me reached out her arm and said to the other lady “oh yes, right this way, follow me.” They walked away together and left me standing in front of the display case, without the item I had requested.
What the heck just happened here?! I went to find my husband and told him what just happened. I was in shock and upset. Then it hit me… the realization that I was just racially profiled because my skin is brown. I had to do something about it. I had to say something. I went back to the counter and named it for what it was. I asked her why she refused to give me the item and then walked away from me. She did not answer. I told her that she cannot treat people that way and it is not acceptable and asked to speak to her supervisor. He came out a few minutes later. I told him I wanted to make a formal complaint against the employee for the way she treated me.
The supervisor said there was nothing he could do about it. I pointed to the stuff in our cart and said “so you are telling me I can freely walk around this store with any of those items which are $5.99 or more but I can’t walk around, with this item for $2.99, because I am brown? He said: “Basically yah!”
My stomach was in knots, and I was both angry and hurt at the same time. I expected the supervisor to correct the behaviour. Instead, he justified her behaviour and supported her decision not to let me leave the area with the item. I gave them our cart full of items and a verbal promise that I will never shop in that store again because they racially profile people and discriminate.
This was wrong on so many levels and I could not just let it go! I have three sons that deserve a better future! I was also starting a new job where I would be supporting women to seek justice and accountability for discrimination and other legal issues. How could I do that effectively, if I did not use my own voice to right a wrong?! For two months I was told by four different store representatives that: “It did not happen,” “the Owner’s would not tolerate that,” “It’s your word against theirs “and “We did nothing wrong.” My last words to them on the issue were: “Hmm, you say it was not discrimination, I disagree, and wonder what the Human Rights Tribunal will say it was?”
That is when things changed, and they asked me how they could make things right. The two staff members agreed to complete cultural sensitivity training, and a note about the incident was added to their human resources file. I was compensated for the losses that day and they made a financial donation to a non-profit organization that supports Indigenous Women. For me there was an apology and a commitment to change and that was enough.
Today, I have the absolute honour and privilege to use my “lived experiences” to better support people in the work we do at CLAS’s Human Rights Clinic.