HALIFAX – Nova Scotia’s first black lieutenant-governor says the province is in a state of denial when it comes to racial profiling, saying she has often been the victim of “shopping while black” since she left her viceregal post four years ago.
Mayann Francis said Thursday she decided to speak out this week after Nova Scotia-based grocery chain Sobeys Inc. announced it will appeal a human rights inquiry decision that found one of its Halifax stores discriminated against a black customer.
Francis, who served as CEO of the rights commission until she was appointed lieutenant-governor in 2006, says hearing about the case motivated her to attend a protest outside a Sobeys store and talk publicly about her experiences.
“It does not matter how successful you are, it still can happen to you,” Francis said in an interview. “It’s just so wrong and so hurtful and I know how I feel when I’m followed in the stores.”
The low-level harassment typically starts as soon as she enters an unfamiliar store, Francis said, stressing that the problem does not apply to all merchants.
“You do not even get past the threshold before someone is rushing up to you … And when you say, ‘I’m just browsing,’ they’re there every time you turn,” she said.
“It’s just over-the-top. Some might say they’re just being polite. No, they’re not. They’re stalking you. It becomes very uncomfortable.”
The frequency of this unsettling experience has prompted her to avoid some merchants and be wary of what she is carrying. She said she never takes off her backpack when she’s shopping and she sometimes carries zippered shopping bags that are kept shut.
The surveillance and her tiring, self-conscious strategies have left her feeling helpless and angry.
“I try not to go into stores that often because I don’t want to deal with it,” said Francis, who grew up in Cape Breton.
Dolly Williams, a board member with the Congress of Black Women of Canada, said Francis’s disturbing story is all too familiar to her.
“When you walk into a store and you’re non-white, you can bet you’ll be followed,” she said from East Preston, a predominantly black community east of Halifax.
“If you’re in your old duds, they will come to you and say, ‘Are you sure this is the store you want to be in?’ Especially high-class stores. They have no respect for black women … because Nova Scotia is still rampant with racism.”
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil also weighed in on the issue Thursday, saying it’s intolerable that any citizen should face discrimination in 2016.
“It’s disappointing when you hear that happening,” he said, adding that the ugly fallout from racism was one of the first things he grappled with when he became premier in 2013.
Only days into his first term, McNeil moved to fulfil a promise to set up an independent panel to review accusations of abuse at a Halifax orphanage known as the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
“There’s no question, I believe that racism was part of that and racism has been part of our history,” the premier said after a cabinet meeting.
In the Sobeys case, a Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission inquiry determined last fall that staff at a store in Tantallon discriminated against Andrella David in May 2009 after falsely accusing her of being a repeat shoplifter.
On March 22, 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.
Francis said steadfast denial has been a part of Nova Scotia’s long history of racism, which is why racial profiling continues to be a problem. The case of Viola Desmond serves as a good example, she said.
In 1946, Desmond was a black businesswoman from Halifax who was jailed for sitting in the whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow. Her defiance earned her a reputation as a civil rights crusader, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she was given a posthumous pardon, which Francis signed.
“There’s this constant denial that it (racism) does exist,” Francis said, adding that the plight of black people who lived in Africville serves as another example.
The last home in the gritty Halifax neighbourhood was bulldozed in 1970, but it took another 40 years before the City of Halifax offered a formal apology.