Nova Scotia course on consumer racial profiling poised to go national

Four months after the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC) launched the country’s first — and only — free online course in consumer racial profiling, the one-of-a-kind program is poised to become national.

Christine Hanson, Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission

The Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies will host the course on its website this fall. Next spring a full-scale rollout will take place in partnership with the Retail Council of Canada.

Clearly the course has resonated. Even before its launch this spring, 600 businesses and 11,000 frontline service staff committed to taking it. In the first four months since its launch, 8,000 people have completed the 20-minute program. NSHRC director and CEO Christine Hanson had estimated the number of participants in the first year would be 10,000. “I’m revising my forecasts,” she said. Indeed, the commission’s chief executive officer is doubling her original estimate.

Uptake has been phenomenal, agreed Jim Cormier, Atlantic director of the Retail Council of Canada in Halifax. “I’m still getting calls from retail head offices across Canada and around the world. Why wouldn’t you want to do everything you can to ensure a welcoming environment?”

While retail store staff are the primary users, other organizations are turning to www.servingall.ca. Many are also requiring their third-party security firms to take the course as well. Several government departments are also having their staff complete the program. “It’s really a basic course for understanding stereotypes,” said Hanson.

The NSHRC’s new course specifically explores consumer racial profiling, illegal and unacceptable behaviours and comments targeted at individuals because of their ethnicity. A 2013 study commissioned by the NSHRC found that African Nova Scotians and Indigenous people were four times more likely to be searched and three times more likely to be followed in a store. Yet there is no evidence to back up the stereotype that one ethnic or racial group is more likely to have higher rates of shoplifting, Hanson said. “It’s very much stereotypes and biases that are in play.”

In Nova Scotia, the impetus for the online course came in the wake of a human rights tribunal decision, Andrella David v. Sobeys Group Inc., that required the grocery chain to educate roughly 3,000 employees about consumer racial profiling. “We reached out to Sobeys and the Retail Council of Canada. They knew they had a big problem,” said Hanson.

Also helping to address the problem were members of the community who came forward to tell their stories, which then became part of the course. “This was a collaboration,” Hanson stressed. “We were all part of a solution. “A lot of lawyers have been watching this with great interest,” she added. “A lot of their clients are involved.”

While it is common sense, and common decency, to treat people with respect, this is not always enough to ensure consumers are treated courteously and equally. Training is essential, especially in a sector such as retailing where staff turnover is often high, said Cormier. The human rights commission’s new course provides both insight into the issue and makes it clear what constitutes acceptable behaviour. “The vast majority of members want to do this because it’s the right thing to do,” added Cormier. “But they are also business people. This is risk mitigation.” Hanson agrees. “This is a pre-emptive strike,” she noted.

The NSHRC director also pointed out that individuals subjected to consumer racial profiling are hurt by their experience in ways that may surprise retail staff. “This behaviour grinds on people,” she said. “It is humiliating.”

As part of its educational campaign to support the course, the NSHRC developed postcards with the message “Serving all customers makes good business sense.” Although intended for use within retail stores, the postcards found their way into the community. Now some individuals are carrying these in their purse. When inappropriately profiled, they are handing a postcard to the salesclerk. “They felt empowered,” said Hanson.

The consumer racial profiling course may be a first. It will not be the last online program the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission creates. Plans are already in the works for a program addressing accommodation of mental and physical disabilities in the workplace and support for transgender employees. “Eventually,” said Hanson, “we will have a full suite of training courses.”  

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