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No resolution to discrimination complaint

Eve Cable The Eastern Door

Darlene Alfred regularly scours the shelves for items that qualify for rain checks – coupons issued to customers to redeem for sale items at a later date when a store has previously run out of sale stock. 

Typically, she has no problems gathering and redeeming her rain checks, and she expected a trip to the Andrée Lachapelle branch of Jean Coutu in Delson to be as regular as any other. But when she was confronted by a manager who demanded she speak to him in French, a language she doesn’t speak, she was left shaken. 

“I went looking for the stuff the rain check would be covering, and sure enough, they had stuff. So I loaded up my cart, and I got in line,” Alfred said. 

Alfred’s coupons covered basic household goods such as laundry detergent and toilet paper. Some of the coupons she had to redeem were from a Chateauguay branch of Jean Coutu, so when a worker had problems scanning them in the Delson store, she sought out the manager. When he approached, she began to explain her request in English. 

“He said, ‘parlez-vous Francais?’ and I said ‘no, I speak English,’ and he said ‘No, this is French, it’s Quebec,’” Alfred said, noting the man had taken an aggressive tone and gestured his hand abruptly into his other hand to underline his point. “I said ‘I don’t understand you, you’re on my land,’ and he was understanding everything I was saying in English, but he refused to talk to me in English.”

Alfred then asked the man for his name, at which point he “abruptly” grabbed his shirt and gestured towards his name tag. After expressing to the manager that she felt his tone and demands were racist, the manager walked away. 

“I was standing there, and I felt small. I felt humiliated. I think I wanted to cry. But I got flashbacks, flashbacks of how we were treated in 1990. And it came back to me so, so quick that it bothered me,” said Alfred.

As Alfred left, another woman of colour who had watched the situation unfold stopped her and told her not to give up on her fight against the manager, telling her she did not deserve to be treated this way, Alfred recalled. 

The next day, Alfred called Jean Coutu’s head office to complain of the situation. 

“They were very apologetic,” Alfred said, noting she initially had hope of a resolution, and that the head office worker told her it would be resolved within 72 hours. “They said it’s unacceptable that he’s conducting himself like this, and for me not to contact the media.”

The next day, Alfred received a phone call from another manager at the Delson store named Dominic. Though Alfred had been assured that a resolution would be found, she was disappointed to hear the manager give excuses for the initial manager’s behaviour.

“He was kind of defending the man. He said he’s been with them for 20 years, they’ve never had a problem with him, he hardly speaks any English,” she remembered being told. “He said ‘I spoke to my other colleagues and managers and we all said yes, he was wrong for not trying to speak with you in English.’”

At that point, Alfred told the manager that she had experienced flashbacks to the way she and other community members had been treated in 1990 during and after the Siege of Kanehsatake. The manager on the phone gave a response that further upset Alfred. 

“I said to him, ‘you know what came back to me? 1990.’ And he said, ‘let’s not go back there,’” Alfred said. “Really? Because that’s how your guy treated me. I was so humiliated … for what we went through in that time frame, and now it’s 2023, and it’s still happening. And it’s not going to stop with individuals like that.”

The Eastern Door reached out to Jean Coutu for comment. The Delson branch of the store informed The Eastern Door that their manager is currently on vacation and not available at this time for comment. Jean Coutu’s head office corresponded with The Eastern Door via email. 

“We regret that the customer did not feel welcome during her visit in-store. We have followed up with her and the employee to clarify the situation,” said Catherine Latendresse, Jean Coutu communications manager, in the email. “However, I would like to point out that some of the elements you describe do not correspond to what we were able to observe on the security camera images we consulted.”

The Eastern Door asked Latendresse what elements of Alfred’s account did not correspond with the security footage. Latendresse refused to detail what did not correspond to Alfred’s account. 

“I will not comment further,” Latendresse wrote, when asked repeatedly for clarification on the matter.

The Eastern Door also asked Latendresse numerous times for information about internal policies and procedures related to anti-racism and interactions with Indigenous customers. Latendresse did not address repeated requests for comment on this matter.

In contrast to Latendresse’s comments, Alfred said that the manager she spoke with on the phone said that her account aligned with what he saw on the security footage, but that since the footage does not contain audio, he could not confirm what was said between the two. 

“He stated that ‘everything you said is all on video, how he reacted, and his (grabbing) his shirt. It’s all on the video, we’ve seen it,’” Alfred explained. The manager on the phone confirmed he could see Alfred yell at the manager that he was racist, and that he could see the second woman, who offered support, talk to Alfred before she left. 

Alfred informed the manager on the phone that she intended to take her story to the local media. 

“I said I’d go to the media, but apparently the head office didn’t want me to go to the media, they said ‘please let us handle it,’ but I’m not pleased with the outcome,” Alfred explained. 

Alfred said that if the company had asked about an appropriate resolution, she would have wanted to see the manager in question suspended or reprimanded, as well as a donation to a local community organization supporting Kahnawake’s youth. 

“If they’d asked or offered something that they could do to solve this … well, they never did,” Alfred said.

Since the incident, Alfred has felt anxious and depressed and has been experiencing flashbacks to treatment she and others experienced in 1990 and after. She worries that younger employees in the store will replicate this racist behaviour, and without intervention, will be uneducated about historical events like the Siege of Kanehsatake and the subsequent racism experienced by the community. 

Alfred’s rain checks have since expired, and she does not plan to return to Jean Coutu’s Delson branch. 

This article was originally published in print on Friday, August 4, in issue 32.31 of The Eastern Door.

Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.