Founded in 1983 - United for Diversity and Racial Equality


Montreal, March 15, 2013 --- A Black businesswoman and designer, who filed a complaint of race discrimination in banking services at a downtown branch, was shocked to receive news of the Canadian Human Rights Commission's dismissal of her case despite clear evidence of mistreatments by different bank officials.

A regular client of the bank dating back six years, Ms. Claudella Gillies considered herself a victim of racial discrimination when accessing banking services. With CRARR's help, she filed a complaint with the Commission in July 2011.

In July 2011, while waiting in a Quebec-based bank's branch on Saint-Laurent Blvd. for a staff member to come and help her make a Western Union transaction as she has often done, the manager treated Ms. Gillies rudely and with less respect and fairness one would expect. Seeing the manager passing by as she waited to make her transaction, she asked him for service at the Western Union counter.

In her account, the manager scoffed at her to wait her turn and said “c'est quoi ton problème,” as he continued walking past her. A hurt and confused Gillies left without making the transaction, and returned about an hour later to request the video surveillance with the view to file a complaint of race discrimination. Upon her return, she spoke to the Customer Service Manager, a female, and was duly assured that it was not racism on the part of the branch manager.

Ms. Gillies then wrote to the Customer Inquiries Manager at the corporate level. The Customer Inquiries Manager launched an internal investigation into the matter, and consulted the Assistant Vice-President of the downtown Montreal branch in question. The Assistant Vice-President then consulted the branch manager and the Customer Service Manager whom Ms. Gillies had spoken with about the event of the day.

The Assistant Vice-President stated to the Commission that race had not “come up at all” during his discussion with branch staff, although Ms. Gillies repeatedly and clearly alleged race bias in her original face-to-face discussion with the Customer Service Manager immediately after the incident and in her subsequent email to bank officials. Yet the Customer Inquiries Manager claimed that in the initial inquiry, Ms. Gillies had not raised the subject of race at all.

The bank then closed the case, but failed to inform Ms. Gillies about the option of appealing the decision through the Ombudsman. After the fact, an officer at Customer Inquiries, who had received her initial email, emailed her a letter that guaranteed the bank's “compliance with the law of equity in employment,” and stated that “it does not tolerate racism in any form.”

Unfortunately, the handling of Ms. Gillies' complaint is riddled with many discrepancies on the part of the bank staff. Although she requested the video surveillance that same day, the bank claimed the video was destroyed and failed to produce it for the Commission's investigation. The video surveillance, despite carrying no sound, could have shown the nature of the incident, and exactly how “angry” the hand gestures made in fact were. Other facts, such as how long the wait at the counter was, and the proximity of the staff members to Ms. Gillies and the manager to hear what was said, could have benefited from even a sound-less video tape. Yet, citing “security reasons,” the bank also failed to explain to the Commission why the tape was destroyed.

Furthermore, the branch manager's description of Ms. Gillies, in the bank's defense, fell privy to pervasive classic stereotypes about black women. She was described as “loud,” “impatient,” “huffing and puffing” and to have been “sighing loudly” prior to him even speaking a word to her. These stereotypical descriptions are held into question when the bank's staff reported not having been able to hear the words exchanged between Ms. Gillies and the branch manager.

In addition, some consistencies arose as to how things took place. For example, in the initial Investigation Report the branch manager stated that he was on the way to get a document and that he left with the branch with his fax for a scheduled meeting. Yet in the Assistant Vice-President's account of what had transpired, the branch manager was on the phone at the time of the incident, and put the call on hold in order to help “the lady that wanted to do western union.”

As for the exchange between Ms. Gillies and the branch manager, the latter claimed she made “angry hand gestures.” While the branch manager stated that he interpreted her hand gesture to mean “f-k off. Get out of my face,” the Customer Service Manager attributed her hand gesture not to anger, but “impatience.” Yet another bank employee makes no reference to the hand gesture in her report of the incident. All Ms. Gillies did at the time was to raise both hands in the air with exasperation, who then proceeded to walk away from her.

Another important piece of evidence is the bank's admission that it has no human rights policy and institutional mechanisms to effectively address Ms. Gillies' complaint. According to the bank, its staff claimed ignorance of her race and the racial nature of the case; the customer service officer who spoke with her over the phone, claimed that she did not know that Ms. Gillies was black, despite the latter's distinguishable Jamaican accent and her email, which clearly referred to race bias.

“Now I know how systemically, a financial institution can openly trivialize and dismiss a customer's complaint of racism and challenge the federal human rights commission's authority to access key evidence,” said Ms. Gillies. “Although it was rejected, my complaint has served show to how far black customers have to go to be heard and treated with respect and fairness by a bank,” she added.

According to CRARR’s Executive Director Fo Niemi, “Ms. Gillies' case may seem minor where race discrimination in services is concerned, yet it highlights deep systemic issues concerning many business institutions' lack of procedures or policy to handle race bias complaints in customer services.”

“It also raises questions about a human rights commission’s ability to handle race bias claims beyond the limited traditional confines of service denials,” he added, pointing to case law in the United States that has defined new standards in addressing racism in commercial services.