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Sobeys racial profiling a case of poor public relations, worse corporate behaviour

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If you'd like an object lesson in how not to conduct corporate public relations, consider how Sobeys, the iconic, Nova Scotia-rooted company that operates the second-largest supermarket chain in the country, bungled a racial-profiling case.

The story began back in May 2009 when an assistant manager at the Sobeys Hammonds Plains outlet confronted a woman named Andrella David, who was waiting in line for an ice cream, publicly accusing her of being "a known shoplifter."

The manager pointedly declared Sobeys had recently caught a thief from "Pockwock Road," a predominantly Black neighbourhood near the store, noted the incident occurred on "cheque day" and claimed David had been videotaped stealing.

David rightly demanded to see the surveillance footage. "If you think that's me," she said, noting the physical differences between her and the woman on the recording, "you must think all Black people look alike."

She complained to Sobeys head office, which sided with the manager -- even though the manager would later admit she knew right away "what I did was wrong."

Instead of acknowledging as much and apologizing, Sobeys doubled down, pushing the case all the way to an independent human rights commission board of inquiry.

The board eventually concluded David had been the victim of racial discrimination and profiling, and, in April -- seven years after the incident -- ordered Sobeys to apologize in writing and pay David $21,000 in damages. It also instructed the company to provide its employees with anti-discrimination training.

Sobeys... appealed.

Really? Really.

In fact, it wasn't until last Monday, two days after the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, the province's "largest Black institution," announced plans to boycott the grocery chain until it apologized and implemented the human rights decision, that the company tepidly suggested in an email release it might withdraw its appeal.

It took until Friday for Sobeys to confirm it would finally obey the order.

Even then, the company seemed unseemly reluctant to accept real responsibility. "Sobeys regrets that this matter has taken so long to come to a conclusion," it said carefully, but it did not say it regretted racially profiling and humiliating Andrella David, or publicly apologize to her -- or to the black community.

Poor public relations. Worse corporate behaviour.

This article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: murray/flickr

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