The owner of an Edmonton shoe repair store who refused to serve a Muslim teen wearing a burka says his policy of not serving people who wear facial coverings has nothing to do with race or religion.
But a Calgary labour and employment lawyer says the store owner could have a difficult time establishing a strong defence if sued for discrimination under Alberta's Human Rights Act.
As CBC reported Monday, 19-year-old Sarii Ghalab recounted being turned away twice from Edmonton Shoe Repair in Northgate Centre. She was first turned away on Jan. 27, when she said she went in to have her broken shoe fixed and was denied service, and a second time when she returned days later to deliver flowers and a note to the shop owner, explaining why she wears a burka.
On Monday, CBC again reached out to store owner Ryan Vale, who said his store has a "no veil" policy.
"It has nothing to do with race," Vale said. "If a white person or any other person came to my store with a covered face, I would say, 'Sorry, I cannot continue to do business with you with a face covering.' It's for safety and shoplifting, and potentially armed robbery or anything. I want to identify the person if there's any misbehaviour or other activity in the store that's illegal, etcetera."
But Frank Molnar, a lawyer at Calgary's Field Law, said that argument is unlikely to stand as a legitimate reason for denying someone service if the young woman were to file a complaint through Alberta's Human Rights Commission.
'The young lady ... may have the ability to file a human rights complaint'
Section 4 of the Alberta Human Rights Act prohibits anyone from denying goods, services, accommodation or facilities available to the public based on numerous protected grounds, including race, skin colour, religious beliefs and disability. That means any service available to the public needs to be available to anyone, Alberta Human Rights Commission spokeswoman Susan Coombes said.
A business owner can decide who they want to serve as a customer, Molnar said, but cannot deny someone service based on the protected grounds listed under the act.
"I think he'd have a very hard time being able to establish any defence." - Frank Molnar
"The young lady that was denied service may have the ability to file a human rights complaint based on the fact that she was denied service on one of the prohibited grounds," Molnar said.
"The store owner would have to make a similar argument that there's a legitimate reason why he can't serve someone who has their face covered. There's no reason why she would need to have her face revealed. He didn't have to identify her for any reason … so I think it would be a pretty hard argument to make.
"I think he'd have a very hard time being able to establish any defence."
To file a human rights complaint, complainants have to prove they fall within the protected categories in the act, Molnar said. In this case, the young woman would have to prove her burka is worn because of religious beliefs.
It's an argument that would be harder to prove for someone wearing a ski mask, for example, Molnar said.
"Someone who's got a ski mask on, if they then assert that it's due to their religious beliefs, they've got the onus of proof to be able to prove that, in fact, they follow a religion where it is an accepted part of their practice to have their face covered in a ski mask," he said.
"I think they'd have a hard time being able to establish that they fall within a protected class, that they're wearing a ski mask because it's an accepted part of a religious practice."
Ghalab says burka a part of her religious beliefs
Ghalab said she never intended to speak out or file a complaint about the encounter. She wanted to give Vale the letter to explain why the burka is an important aspect of her faith, she said.
"If women had the right to wear as little clothes as they desired without people finding it offensive, then I had every right to cover my body as much as I liked without worry either," her letter says.
"Just like it is in my values to dress this way, it is also in my values and beliefs as a Muslim that I respond to what is hurtful with kindness and compassion. Our dress is not because we want to seem mysterious or any of this childish play. But it is because this is our identity, our self empowerment, our self expression of who we are."