Sisters carry on dead mother's complaint against Zellers

Two sisters from Bridgetown have an unusual case before the province's human rights commission.

Kathleen Viner said she was racially profiled

Kathleen Viner said she was racially profiled at a Zellers in 2008. She died in 2011. (Submitted by Viner family)

Two sisters from Bridgetown, N.S., are marching on with their mother's human rights complaint two years after her death and one year after the implicated store closed.

Shelley and Donna Viner say their mother, Kathleen Viner, was unfairly accused of stealing from a Zellers store in Greenwood in 2008.

Viner, then in her late 70s, said she was detained by security and searched, even though she had a receipt for a rug she bought. Viner said she was discriminated against for being black and began a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

"It affected her mental state, her physical state," said Donna Viner. "Just because of the humiliation and hurt she felt, it was sad to watch her."

Their mother died in 2011 at the age of 81 after the human rights commission had set up a board of inquiry into her case, but before her case could be heard.

The sisters say it's their duty to pick up their mother's torch.

"She was devastated," said Shelley Viner. "I keep going back to humiliation, because she was just a hard working woman that took care of her kids."

Lisa Teryl, a lawyer with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, is arguing Viner's case.

"There is a public interest that exists and survives, regardless of the status of the complainant," Teryl said. "Human rights law has a greater public interest. So when one person is discriminated [against], that actually has a social ripple effect. So it impacts all of us."

Shelley, left, and Donna Viner say their mother was unfairly accused of stealing because she was black. (CBC)


Dennis James, the independent adjudicator who will decide the case, agreed that the inquiry could go forward even after Viner's death.

"Human rights commissions have that important role of making sure that we don't just allow this to be an individual complaint, that we also look at the social ramifications of discrimination," Teryl said.

"If there's a finding of discrimination, it's important whether Zellers continues to be discriminatory towards African Nova Scotian people."

The case was further complicated when Zellers' parent company, Hudson's Bay, sold the chain in 2011. All Zellers stores in Nova Scotia are closed, including the Greenwood location where the incident occurred.

On Tuesday, lawyers for Hudson's Bay asked that the company be removed from the case.

But "Zellers exists as a corporate entity nationally as well," argues Teryl. 

In an email, Hudson's Bay said it has no comment because the case is under review.

Shelley Viner said she and her sister won't give up.

"She didn't deserve what happened, to be treated that way," she said. 

If the case is decided in their favour, the Viners said they want the company to contribute to education programs to end racial profiling in stores.