An Edmonton woman has filed a human rights complaint after her autistic nine-year-old daughter and service dog were told to leave the west-end Winners for the second time in three months.
"I don't believe that anybody should feel like a second-class citizen in any place … and especially as a child," said Alison Ainsworth, Emily's mother.
The discount clothing store ordered Ainsworth's daughter, Emily, and her dog Levi to leave the premises last July, but later apologized to the family.
The store sent Emily a formal apology, a card featuring a puppy on the cover and a $25 gift card. The apology was written by Mike Faulkner, Edmonton district manager for TJX Canada, the parent company of Winners.
"I followed up with the store and the manager involved and he was very apologetic," Faulkner wrote. "He certainly didn't mean any offence at all and was upset to hear that you and your daughter were upset.
"My biggest concern is that your daughter doesn't feel welcome so if you don't mind spoiling her a bit, I'd like to give her a $25 gift card to pick something she'd like from any of our stores."
Mother doubts store's apology
On Sunday, Emily, Levi and her mother visited the store to use the gift card when they were told by store staff that Levi, whose harness identifies him as a service dog, was not allowed into the store.
"We were asked to leave the store," she said. "My child's service dog was not permitted in their establishment anywhere. And if that's true, then that includes my child because there is no separation between the two of them."
Emily said leaving the store made her sad.
"I was disappointed that I didn't get anything from the store, even my dress that my mom picked out nicely for me," she said.
Ainsworth described the incidents as uneducated and unfounded bullying.
"It's demoralizing," she said. "It's demeaning."
Ainworth doubts the sincerity of the store's apology.
"Had they taken it with seriousness, then I think their staff would have become educated," said Ainsworth.
"For us as a family to go back in and to be kicked a second time...it's almost as though we were lured into an establishment under the guise that it was a safe place to go."
While it may not look as though Emily needs a service dog, Levi is imperative to Emily's well-being, said Ainsworth.
Levi gives Emily a sense of stability, Ainsworth said.
'We are looking into the particulars regarding this customer's experience and will reach out to her directly.' —Doreen Thompson, TJX spokeswoman
"He's very grounding and he gives her opportunity to participate in community and school and home in a way that would otherwise be challenging for her," she said.
Without Levi, Emily could get lost or leave the store with a stranger, she said.
"It's really the difference of life and death."
Ainsworth filed a complaint with police and the Alberta Human Rights Commission and she's hoping the store will go beyond a simple apology this time: "They have an unique opportunity now not only to educate their store associates, but they can educate the public as well."
The parent company of Winners says allowing service animals in its stores is standard policy.
"We are looking into the particulars regarding this customer's experience and will reach out to her directly, as well as take whatever actions we believe are appropriate," said Doreen Thompson, TJX spokeswoman.