A Vancouver restaurant owner was ordered by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal this month to pay each of four friends $1,000 after she uttered racist remarks while refusing them service.
Cyrilla Conforti – the owner of Toscani Coffee Bar on Commercial Drive – admitted to telling customer Walid Haouas she no longer wanted “you Arabs” as patrons on July 8, 2017.
Haouas, a customer for nearly 13 years, said the owner also encouraged him to “tell your friends” what she said.
Friend Ben Maaouia testified that when he went to Toscani later that day, Conforti told him she would not serve him, asking him to talk to Haouas as to why.
Along with Maaouia and Haouas, Bechir Gharbi and Aissa Dairy said they had been patrons of Toscani almost daily for 20 years – all are immigrants from North Africa and identify as Arab.
Ben Maaouia and Gharbi arrived at the coffee bar later that day – in tribunal filings, Conforti said she assumed they had spoken with Haouas and didn’t want her serving them pair.
In response, the restaurant owner said Maaouia approached her and said, “(Expletive) you, you piece of (expletive). Go back to the third world country where you belong.”
Conforti, herself, is woman of colour, brought up by a Muslim family in Indonesia. Maaouia denied making such a comment, saying that he is also from a so-called third-world country.
“She felt shocked, scared, and speechless,” tribunal member Devyn Cousineau acknowledged in his Feb. 23 decision.
Though Conforti agreed she did not want to serve Haouas, she denied it had anything to do with him or his friends being Arab.
The owner did however admit to saying she would no longer serve “you Arabs.”
The tribunal member said it was possible that Conforti uttered the wrong words at Haouas, in the spur of the moment, being that English is not her first language.
However, this did not change Cousineau’s ruling.
“This comment connected the complainants’ race to Ms. Conforti’s refusal to serve them,” Cousineau ruled. “This was a violation of the Human Rights Code.”
Cousineau said the restaurant was a place where the North African friends could gather among others from their community.
“Losing that space was significant to each of them,” the tribunal member said.
He acknowledged the difficulty Conforti has as a small business owner in Vancouver.
“I have accepted that some of the complainants made her feel disrespected in her own business and that was upsetting to her,” Cousineau said.
Conforti said on one occasion the complainants took the Toscani T.V. remote and changed it to play Arabic music. On another, his friends complained to her husband about her service.
The owner found this was inappropriate and disrespectful, Cousineau detailed.
“I recognize the gendered power dynamics that she talks about when she emphasizes that she felt intimidated, afraid and disrespected as a woman.”
The men have not returned to the Vancouver restaurant.
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