A woman in Montreal, Canada, sent home from work over her braided hairstyle is walking away victorious four years after filing a lawsuit against her employer alleging gender and racial discrimination.
On Nov. 27, the Quebec Human Rights Commission ruled that Lettia McNickle was a victim of workplace discrimination, Global News Canada reported. Now, the owner of Madison’s New York Bar and Grill is ordered to fork over $14,500 to the young woman.
McNickle, 23, was thrilled over the commission’s ruling and says she hopes it’ll serve as a lesson to other employers. She recalled the sadness and disappointment she felt when her boss, Roulla Kyriacou, sent her home in November 2014 over something as simple as her hair, which was in cornrows at the time.
“She took me aside personally and told me she did not want that kind of hairstyle in her establishment,” McNickle recalled, fighting back tears. “Now that today it actually came to this [decision], I feel proud.”
“Now they [Madison’s] know and other restaurants and companies know that they can’t get away with this,” she added.
McNickle started waitressing at the steakhouse in October 2014 and said she noticed issues early on. On one occasion, the young woman said she was wearing pants, as mandated by the company’s dress code, but Kyriacou insisted she wear skirts “above the knee.” A couple weeks later when she arrived to work with her hair cornrowed, Kyriacou sent her home.
“It didn’t really kick in until I almost got home. I called my mother and I started to cry because I didn’t believe it was actually happening,” she told the Montreal Gazette.
McNickle changed her hairstyle, but kept the braids. When Kyriacou saw her, she went “ballistic,” she said.
“Publicly — in front of customers, in front of employees — embarrassing me and telling me that, my hairstyle, she doesn’t want it here and that the managers didn’t give her message properly,” she recalled.
After that, McNickle said her hours at the local pub dwindled until she was fired in March 2015. She filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission the following month.
The Montreal-based Centre for Research Action on Race Relations has represented McNickle since the beginning and called the commission’s decision a first for Canada as it pertains to gender and issues of discrimination of Black women and their hair. Fo Niemi, the center’s executive director, said he hopes the ruling forces the restaurant to review its policy on equal opportunity.
“They have to review their policies and their way of doing things to recognize, among other things, a Black woman’s rights to be how she wants to look,” Niemi told the news site.
McNickle’s mother expressed similar sentiments and dubbed the ruling a victory for Black women.
“I just want to encourage other black women out there to be proud of who you are, from your Afro hair to your curly hair, whether you want to straighten it out, it does not define you,” Huelette McNickle, who worked as a hairstylist for two decades, said. “Your conduct, your work ethic, your attitude — that’s what defines you.”
Despite the backlash, Kyriacou insisted she isn’t a racist and employs people of all backgrounds. The restaurant’s corporate office issued a formal apology after the controversy made headlines and agreed to facilitate mediation sessions with McNickle. The company reneged a few weeks later, however,
According to Global News, the commission’s ruling is nonbinding, so if Kyriacou refuses to pay the $14,500 in damages by Dec. 21 the case will go to the Human Rights Tribunal.
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