'Know you have rights': Canadian waitress to receive $14,500 after being fired for wearing hair in cornrows

Elizabeth Di Filippo
Lettia McNickle. Image via CBC.
Lettia McNickle. Image via CBC.

A Montreal steakhouse owner has been ordered to pay $14,500 in damages to a former employee as the result of a gender and racial discrimination complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal.

In 2014, Lettia McNickle was waitressing at Madisons Restaurant & Bar in downtown Montreal when she began experiencing trouble with her employer, Roulla Kyriacou.

“I was wearing pants, going along with the dress code, but (Kyriacou) still insisted that I wear skirts above the knee,” McNickle said. “I did just that but then I realized that other girls were wearing pants. So then I complained, ‘Other girls are wearing pants and I’m wearing a skirt. Why is that?'”

Lettia McNickle. Image via Twitter.
Lettia McNickle. Image via Twitter.

Weeks later, McNickle was sent home after she showed up to work with her hair braided in cornrows.

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“It didn’t really kick in until I almost got home,” McNickle recalled. “I called my mother and started to cry because I didn’t believe it was actually happening.”

The next day, McNickle changed her hairstyle but kept it in braids, and says she was publicly humiliated by Kyriacou.

Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

“(Kyriacou) went ballistic,” McNickle remembered, fighting back tears. “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.”

McNickle was let go in March 2015, and shared her story with the media, prompting the steakhouse to issue a formal public apology and offer mediation sessions. However, the company reneged on their offer weeks later, and McNickle filed a complaint with the human rights commission in April of that year.

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Image via Getty Images.
Image via Getty Images.

Last month, the commission ruled in favour of McNickle, giving the company until Dec. 21 to honour their ruling.

“I feel proud and I just want to let all other black females know that, if something is going on, know you have rights,” McNickle said. “In your workplace, in your school, you have rights — whether it’s your hair or your skin colour.”

While she was employed at Madisons, McNickle says there was only one other black employee in her 40s, but she never asked her whether or not she experienced any discrimination with the owner.

“I realized after the incident, from the day I started working there until the day I left, she had the same wig on the whole time,” McNickle said. “Did they ask her to keep it; did they tell her to change it?”

McNickle’s mother, Huella, says she’s proud of her daughter for showing such strength.

Your hair doesn’t define you; your conduct, your character, your work ethic, that’s what defines you,” Huella said. “I’m happy. I’m really happy that we have the victory today.”

McNickle now resides in Toronto and is studying to become a flight attendant.

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