Montreal

Montreal restaurant fights case of waitress alleging racial discrimination over braids

A Montreal restaurant that apologized for its treatment of an employee who wore natural braids on the job has withdrawn from a mediation process aimed at an amicable resolution of the complaint.

Complaint alleging 'racial and gender bias' against Madisons Grill & Bar faces long delay

Former waitress Lettia McNickle, whose natural hair led a former employee to sour on her, will have to wait up to three more years for her complaint to be heard. (Submitted by Lettia McNickle)

A Montreal restaurant that apologized for its treatment of an employee who wore natural braids on the job has withdrawn from a mediation process aimed at an amicable resolution of the complaint.

The decision means that the case could take up to three more years to be resolved. 

The head office of Madisons New York Grill & Bar, which operates a dozen Montreal-area restaurants, issued a written apology on March 20 after Lettia McNickle complained that she was given less work when a supervisor took exception to her natural hairstyle. 

McNickle alleged the hairstyle dispute was a case of racial discrimination.

The heart of this is whether a company policy on hair grooming should be changed to reflect racial and gender bias.- Fo Niemi, Center for Research-Action on Race Relations

The restaurant agreed to participate in mediation to resolve the situation amicably.

But it recently reversed course and withdrew from a meeting scheduled for later this month, according to Fo Niemi, co-founder and executive director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRRAR). 

The refusal means that the case will be investigated by the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission, a process which could take two to three years. 

Waiting game

Lettia McNickle said she didn't get shifts after her boss told her she didn't like her hairstyle. (Submitted by Lettia McNickle)
An official with the human rights commission told CBC it does not comment on ongoing cases and the time required to conduct an investigation varies from case to case. 

The delay has compounded McNickle's frustration.

"I feel confused because I thought everything was going smoothly and now it's just a waiting game and I feel like it's never going to end," McNickle said in an interview.

McNickle said that she feels indifferent to the apology from the company because it did not come from the boss she felt targeted by.

"I wanted the apology to come from the individual who hurt me not from the head of the company or the vice president," she said. 

'Disappointed'

The reversal comes as a surprise to CRARR, which is handling the case for McNickle.

"I'm a little bit disappointed. The issue seems to be a clear cut, black and white and could have been resolved very successfully," said Niemi. 

"Usually when someone has accepted mediation there's an openness to a friendly settlement or resolution. I can't say why they would change their position like that. Maybe they hope that the case will go away or people will get discouraged and drop out."

The restaurant will likely incur significant legal costs to handle their defence, Niemi noted. 

Gilles Pépin, a vice-president for the Canadian franchises of the Madisons chain, said the head office had no input on the decision, which was taken by the Drummond Street franchise alone.  

Restaurant management of the Drummond Street branch declined to comment on the case when contacted on Wednesday.

Both CRARR and McNickle said that they will continue the fight, which could represent a landmark case of sorts. 

"The heart of this is whether a company policy on hair grooming should be changed to reflect racial and gender bias," said Niemi. 

'Racism is still out there'

McNickle, a student, has found another part-time job and now makes a point of informing all potential employers that she comes with her natural hair.  

"I wear my real hair most of the time, everybody knows it and I'm not going to stop," she said. 

McNickle said that her situation has gained her some notoriety, with people stopping her on the street and expressing their disbelief with the situation she was subject to.

One classmate even chose to write a current event essay on her plight without even knowing that she was in the same class. 

McNickle said that while she looks forward to a resolution, she is also glad that she stood up for African-Canadians with natural hair.  

"When I came out other people started telling their stories but none are taking is as far I am. It needs to go this far because it's almost 2016 and racism is still out there," she said.  "We thought this was all done and then we go to work and it's still there."

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