Toronto restaurant ordered to pay black man $10K after asking him to prepay for meal

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ordered a downtown Toronto Chinese restaurant to give a man $10,000 in damages after he and a group of friends were asked to prepay for their meals. Emile Wickham says the incident rattled his faith in Toronto's inclusiveness.

Emile Wickham was celebrating his birthday with friends when the incident happened in 2014

Emile Wickham remembers his anger turning to 'sadness and dejection' after leaving the restaurant. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

A black man from Toronto has been awarded $10,000 in damages from a downtown Chinese restaurant that asked him and a group of friends to prepay for their meals.

The payment was ordered by Ontario's Human Rights Tribunal, which determined the man faced racial discrimination in the incident, infringing on his human rights.

"In a city that really plays up its multiculturalism, [this] really said something," said the complainant, Emile Wickham, who was 27 at the time. "I decided there and then that night that I was going to stand up for this."

The incident happened on an early morning in May 2014, when Wickham went to celebrate his birthday with three friends at the Hong Shing Chinese Restaurant, located at the corner of Dundas Street West and Centre Avenue.

After taking their seats, a server told the group, all of them black, that they would have to prepay for their meals due to a restaurant policy.

While the group at first agreed and paid the bill, Wickham then decided to ask other customers at the restaurant if they too were required to prepay.

This photo of Wickham and his friends, which shows unused utensils and plates alongside a tray with cash on it, was entered as an exhibit during the hearing. (Emile Wickham)

"I got up and I went to each table to ask, and every table said no," Wickham said. He and his friends testified to the tribunal that there were no other black customers in the restaurant at the time.

After Wickham and his friends confronted the server about the discrepancy, Hong Shing offered a refund, which the group accepted before leaving the restaurant.

"When we got outside, that's when the anger turned to sadness and dejection," Wickham remembered. "We didn't eat anything after that, we didn't go anywhere."

Hong Shing declined an interview request from CBC Toronto, saying the restaurant is under new ownership since the incident.

'A rude awakening'

While Wickham, now 31, said he considered starting a protest after the incident, he instead decided to pursue a formal complaint with the help of Ontario's Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

From start to finish, the process took just under four years, but adjudicator Esi Codjoe ultimately ruled in Wickham's favour.

"It has fundamentally changed the way that [Wickham] perceives Toronto, and the level of the city's inclusiveness," Codjoe wrote in her ruling. "The applicant feels less accepted in the city as a result. The incident was a rude awakening."

Roger Love, a lawyer with Ontario’s Human Rights Legal Support Centre, represented Wickham during the hearing. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Wickham's lawyer, Roger Love, lauded the tribunal's decision. He said the Human Rights Legal Support Centre receives multiple calls every day about anti-black racism, but few of them are ever seen through.

"Cases like this are really important because it shows there can be some semblance of justice in our system," Love said.

"My victory is their victory as well," said Wickham of Toronto's larger black community.

While Love and Wickham had also requested a formal apology from the restaurant, and the requirement that Hong Shing post a sign stating it does not require prepayment for meals, the adjudicator did not accept those conditions.

Instead, she ordered the restaurant to post an Ontario Human Rights Commission Code card in a prominent location.

A call to other businesses

Some anti-racism advocates say the ruling could be a wake-up call prompting other businesses to look at the way they operate.

"It's not a major ask to say, 'Can you look at your policies and practices through an anti-black racism lens,'" said Tomee Sojourner-Campbell, a consultant in the area of consumer racial profiling.

Racial profiling consultant Tomee Sojourner-Campbell says a business's formal and informal policies can sometimes promote racial discrimination. (Submitted by Tomee Sojourner)

She said businesses could consult with marginalized communities or review Toronto's anti-black racism resources to ensure they avoid discriminatory practices.

"Ultimately, the goal is to provide the best customer service and treat everybody equally," Sojourner-Campbell said.

Wickham said Hong Shing does not appear to be taking that process seriously, as the restaurant has so far declined his request to discuss the incident.

"What I'm still holding out hope for is a frank and honest discussion with the owners," he said.

With files from Lisa Xing