Human rights complaint filed over ‘humiliating’ liquor store visit
An Indigenous woman has asked the NWT Human Rights Commission to intervene after what she alleges was a case of racial profiling at Yellowknife’s downtown liquor store.
Jessica Riddle’s complaint has been taken up by the commission, which is understood to have since approached the store for a response. Riddle says a follow-up meeting with store representatives will take place next month.
She alleges that on November 24, while attempting to buy red wine to add to a beef stew, store workers refused to serve her as she had “been staggering.”
Riddle says she has psoriatic arthritis and may have been limping that day as a result.
“I realized that I was racially profiled because they thought I was staggering and I’m Indigenous, so I must be drunk,” her written complaint to the human rights commission states.
“No one asked me if I needed help to pick a wine, no one spoke to me to assess if I have been drinking.
“I hate this feeling and sometimes people are just, ‘Get over it,’ but I can’t. This behaviour needs to be recognized and talked about.”
The NWT Human Rights Commission said it could not discuss Riddle’s case as the complaints process leading up to a potential hearing is confidential.
Reached by phone, Jennifer Eggenberger – a director of the company that controls the downtown liquor store – said owner and operator Ed Eggenberger was on vacation and would not be available for comment.
Riddle told Cabin Radio she is a member of the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation who was born in Łútsël K’é and raised in Nova Scotia by adoptive parents before moving back to the NWT in 2010.
Now a Yellowknife resident, Riddle said the November incident had left her feeling anxious in stores. She described panicking at a Dollarama self-checkout the following day, fearing she and her boyfriend would be accused of stealing as they tried to scan items.
“It just felt wrong, everything about it,” she said of her experience at the liquor store.
“I know about racial profiling and that, to me, right away came to my head. That’s what set me to make a complaint.
“For Indigenous people dressing a certain way – or just being Indigenous – if you go into local businesses, they do sometimes watch you and observe you, to see if you’re intoxicated or maybe you might be stealing.
“I’ve experienced this type of thing before but at the time, I didn’t do anything about it. This time I was like, ‘OK, this can’t keep happening.'”
In her complaint, Riddle states a friend whom she describes as light-skinned and Métis was later able to buy the wine on her behalf.
Her complaint alleges discrimination on the grounds of race and disability.
“I knew I had to do it,” she said. “The process is definitely not easy – you have to do the paperwork, you have to write down how it affected you emotionally, how it was connected to discrimination.”
Riddle says she has been told to expect the two store employees involved in the interaction at next month’s meeting. If concerns are not resolved at such meetings, the human rights commission ordinarily escalates complaints to a formal hearing followed by an adjudication.
Describing why she chose to make her complaint public, Riddle said she believes “the end result is that people need to know about this.”
Riddle said she wants staff at NWT liquor stores to receive more training akin to the territorial government’s cultural sensitivity training.
A spokesperson for the NWT Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which regulates the territory’s liquor stores, noted that store staff are not employed by the NWT government.
“However, all liquor store contracts require contractors to comply with all procedures, protocols and the like,” spokesperson Matthew Mallon said by email.
“The GNWT has cultural awareness and sensitivity training for its employees, and this training has been made available to all liquor store managers and employees.”
Mallon said liquor stores are “continuously monitored for compliance” with the terms of their contracts, though he said the role the liquor commission plays in following up on human rights complaints would vary according to the details of each case.
Charles Dent, the chair of the NWT Human Rights Commission, highlighted three other cases in the past 15 years that have come before the commission and involve similarities.
In two of the cases – a person denied access to a Yellowknife pub several times in 2006 and a refusal to serve a person at the city’s uptown liquor shop in 2014 – the complaints were dismissed.
In each of those instances, adjudicators found that complainants were unable to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the staff in question had refused entry or service because of the complainant’s race. (A staff member may make an error in assessing someone’s intoxication, one adjudicator concluded, but that alone does not amount to race-based discrimination.)
In the third case highlighted by Dent, the GNWT was found to have discriminated against Tuktoyaktuk residents in 2018 by issuing income assistance in the form of food vouchers instead of cash. An adjudicator concluded that the policy was “premised on the suspicion that recipients in Tuktoyaktuk were spending money on drugs and alcohol instead of food for children” and “was based on generalization and stereotypes rather than facts.”
Riddle said the prospect of meeting with liquor store staff in January felt “somewhat uncomfortable” but she hoped to use the meeting to explain how the incident had made her feel.
“It was humiliating,” she said. “It caused me a lot of anxiety.”