Cornrow discrimination case heads to Quebec Human Rights Tribunal

Lettia McNickle

MONTREAL – A case against, a Madisons New York Grill & Bar restaurant in Montreal for discrimination against an English-speaking young Black hostess who wore her hair in cornrows, will proceed to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.

In March 2015, Lettia McNickle’s employment was terminated due in part to the local restaurant owner’s disapproval of her cornrow braids. The owner, Roulla Kyriacou, also told McNickle to wear skirts while other hostesses were allowed to wear either skirts or pants.

After investigating the complaint  by the  Center for Research-Action on Race Relations CRARR,) filed on behalf of McNickle, the Quebec Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission concluded last Fall that she had been a victim of discrimination based on race, ethnic or national origin and gender. It recommended that Kyriacou and Madisons New York Grill & Bar pay her $10,000 in moral damages, that Kyriacou personally pay her $1,500 in punitive damages and that the establishment pay her $3,000 in punitive damages.

Since the respondents did not comply with the Commission’s decision and discussions between the parties have been unable to lead to a satisfactory conclusion, McNickle has requested that her case be brought before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.

“Our hairstyle is such a fundamental part of our racial and cultural history and identity, so to deny us the right to freely wear our hair the way we want is to deny our identity as Black women,” McNickle said in the CRARR statement.

She said that the ruling was not only a victory for her, but others like her.

“I hope that this decision will benefit Black women everywhere in Canada and beyond, because it sends a powerful message to anyone who thinks of denying our Blackness and our womanhood the respect and recognition we deserve.”

According to CRARR, the decision is the first to legally recognize discrimination involving black hairstyles in Quebec.

McNickle’s mother, who worked as a hairdresser for two decades, claims it’s a victory for all black women.

“I just want to encourage other black women out there to be proud of who you are, from your Aro hair to your curly hair, whether you want to straighten it out, it doesn’t define you,” Huelette McNickle said.

“Your conduct, your character, your work ethic, your attitude, that’s what defines you.”

Only last month, the New York City Commission on Human Rights adopted a Legal Enforcement Guidance on race discrimination on the basis of hair. Under this new addition to its human rights law, the New York City  Commission considers that “grooming or appearance policies that ban, limit, or otherwise restrict natural hair or hairstyles associated with Black people generally violate the NYCHRL’s anti-discrimination provisions.

“We believe that this issue is of utter public national importance, particularly to young Black communities everywhere,” said Fo Niemi, Executive Director of  the CRARR.

“We encourage (black women), if they encounter any kind of injustice at work, that they should come forward and not hesitate to speak out.”

The case against the Madisons New York Grill and Bar is expected to be heard later this year,