Major Canadian retailer caught up in racism row

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In a rare positive decision for a racial profiling case, Shoppers Drug Mart has been ordered to pay $8,000 to one persecuted customer – experts say the ruling serves as an important warning to employers.

The incident 

In 2011, Mary McCarthy was confronted by Shoppers Drug Mart employee Ujjaijjini Balachandra, who accused the employment counsellor of stealing before searching her backpack.

McCarthy, who had briefly unzipped her bag to retrieve packaging, was certain her skin colour was the only factor provoking the employee’s suspicion and, in a rare ruling four years later, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario agreed.

The employee was “being influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the stereotype that black people are thieves,” the recent ruling states – Shoppers Drug Mart was ordered to pay McCarthy $8,000.

Ruling

Tribunal adjudicator Ken Bhattacharjee acknowledged that it was reasonable for the employee to be suspicious of someone zipping up a bag as the store has a shoplifting problem but he aslo said Balachandra went beyond suspicion to a “strong belief” – a belief she herself could not adequately explain.

Bhattacharjee said this strong belief was therefore “completely illogical,” given that Balachandra did not see McCarthy put anything in her bag.

The ruling also found that employee Balachandra was rude to McCarthy, did not follow Shoppers’ protocol in dealing with suspected shopliftes and tried to evade the allegation by saying she had noticed McCarthy was black.

“I think (the ruling) is a wakeup call for many people, especially store owners and staff, to adhere to proper protocol when they suspect someone of shoplifting, not to go on the looks of someone,” McCarthy told the Toronto Star.

Legal advice

While employee Balachandra’s behaviour was out of-line with official Shoppers policy, the organization was still forced to pay-up – employment lawyers at Kent Employment Law told HRM that “vicarious liability” is to blame. (Continued...)

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  • Patricia on 2015-10-09 6:49:47 PM

    I'm glad to see this issue come to light. Many want to put their head in the sand and believe racism and discrimination doesn't exist in Canada, but it does. I'm all for policies, but you can have all the policies in the world and it won't change people's ignorant beliefs and biases. Education and positive representations of racial groups are key to transformation.

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