Nfld. & Labrador

'I felt belittled': Sheshatshiu woman raises flag after comment about 'Innu line' at store

Stella Rich says the remark left her feeling like an outsider, and she's speaking up so it doesn't happen again.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay co-op investigating incident

Stella Rich, a member of the Sheshatshiu First Nation, is speaking out after a grocery store employee made a harmful remark about being Innu. (Submitted by Stella Rich)

A Sheshatshiu woman is raising concerns over discrimination after publicly denouncing a grocery store employee for making what she calls a racist remark.

Stella Rich, who is abiding by Sheshatshiu's lockdown measures that only allow residents to leave the community at specific times to stock up on essentials, said she was at the checkout of a Happy Valley-Goose Bay co-op when the incident happened.

Rich says an employee about to leave after a shift lined up behind her to buy some items. 

"As soon as he [saw] me, he walked away and went to another cash, and said, 'Oh, this line is the Innu line,'" she said.

"As soon as I heard that I looked at him, and he looked at me with a grin."

Rich, disturbed, didn't say anything at the time, and kept quiet until recently about the incident, which happened three weeks ago. 

"I felt belittled. I felt like I didn't belong there," she said Wednesday. 

"I just wanted to pay my groceries and get out of there."

George Andrews, president of the Terrington Co-op, told CBC News the store has a "zero-tolerance" policy for discrimination and harassment.

"That's just not acceptable," he said.

He reached out to Rich on Sunday, immediately after learning about the incident, to apologize.

Management has been unable to identify the employee involved because camera footage isn't kept longer than 10 days, Andrews said, adding he would direct management to remind all employees of the store's policies.

Rich, hesitant to repeat the experience, says she wants to avoid the store altogether. She only discussed the issue publicly on social media only late last week.

"I've had a lot of people inboxing me.… They're encouraging me to speak up for our people. So that's what I'm doing. Somebody has to do it," she said. 

"We don't need this. We want to be able to go into any department store, or any store at all, and feel safe," she said.

"We're all trying to fight this COVID-19 pandemic together."

Stress no excuse: human rights commission

Rich told Labrador Morning that three weeks after the event, she's still trying to wrap her head around it.

"If I had to face this man … I'm just lost for words," she said. "I wouldn't know what to say to him."

That's a common concern the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission hears from victims of racism, said director Carey Majid.

"People don't want to go through and file a complaint. It's a legal process. It's emotionally difficult for people to take this on," Majid said.

For those on the receiving end, there are other means of addressing the matter and making it known. The commission also helps provide guidance for people who want to confront those involved in an incident.

Sometimes that effort can improve relationships. But, she warns, "it shouldn't be all on that person who's experienced racism. It should be a community effort to make sure that this stuff gets dealt with properly."

Carey Majid, executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission, says Rich's experience isn't uncommon. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Businesses are legally required to prevent discrimination or harassment in their stores, Majid added. 

While the stress of shopping within coronavirus restrictions might have everyone on edge, Majid said, it's no excuse to lash out.

"Racism, broadly defined, is when you treat somebody differently or unfairly. And it doesn't have to be intentional — sometimes it's not. You're making those decisions on how to treat somebody because of stereotypical beliefs or ideas about a person's race," she said.

"Racism existed before COVID-19. And let me tell you, it's going to continue to exist well into the future unless we do something about it."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Alyson Samson and Labrador Morning

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