Montreal women ask why only Black hair products deemed ‘non-essential’ in drugstore
MONTREAL — Quebec’s essential-services-only lockdown has raised a few eyebrows, at least in terms of what’s considered “essential” or not—Books? Winter gear? Toddler toys?
One decision in a drugstore in LaSalle had a few local women doing more than raising eyebrows. After seeing a photo on social media originally snapped by Tisha Samuel, of hair products for Black people—but only Black people—taped off in a store, Kelsey Walker reached out to the woman who posted the photo, Crystal Brooks.
Walker then asked if she could join Brooks and Samuel on their planned follow up visit to the store the next day.
“My main thing…was not to stir up anger, it was just to get an answer,” Walker, 33, told CTV Montreal. “What a lot of us need are answers to things that don’t make sense.”
When she walked into the Uniprix drugstore on Dollard Ave. in LaSalle on Wednesday, she saw that the entire shampoo aisle was available for purchase—except for one tiny section of it, three feet across at most, with all the products for Black customers like her.
That was when she knew she needed to talk to the owner. If the shampoo aisle “was blocked off across the board, I wouldn’t have had a word to say,” Walker said.
“The fact that we were singled out—I want to know why they thought that that was okay.”
Walker didn’t get a very satisfying answer through her own research, even after posting a video of her talk with the owner on Instagram and having it blow up with shared experiences.
But an organization representing Quebec’s pharmacy chains said in a statement that, essentially, confusion reigned in the first few days of the province’s 18-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown, and some human errors were made.
A PROVINCE FULL OF TAPED-OFF AISLES
Odd-looking shops full of caution tape are a feature of Quebec’s lockdown because the government listened to a plea from locally owned stores.
The small businesses said that big box stores like Walmart and Costco sell essential goods like groceries and medications, but they also sell a lot of non-essential goods, and that it disadvantages the independent, often Canadian-owned stores to simply send shoppers flocking to major chains.
The province created a new rule saying that businesses selling essential goods could stay open, but they had to stop selling non-essential goods. Many have accomplished this by putting caution tape around the non-essential aisles.
But what exactly is on which list is still not entirely clear, and pharmacies only had a day’s notice to fall in line, said Hugues Mousseau, Director General of the Québec Association of Pharmacy Banners and Chains (ABCPQ), in a statement to CTV News.
“Late on December 23, the Government of Quebec issued a decree according to which all community pharmacies across the province needed to ensure that only products essential to everyday life be sold between December 25 and January 10,” wrote Mousseau.
“The decree did not provide a specific list of products deemed essential or not essential,” Mousseau wrote, so each of Quebec’s 1,900 community pharmacies had to make their own judgment calls.
Uniprix is one of the ABCPQ’s members and designated Mousseau to speak about Walker’s question.
A MYSTERIOUS NO-GO LIST
Walker grew up near the Uniprix store in question in LaSalle. She first heard of the banned hair products on Tuesday after seeing a picture taken by another LaSalle resident, Tisha Samuel, that was then posted on social media by Samuel’s friend Crystal Brooks..
Walker didn’t want to “jump the gun” and assume anything, she said, so she went in to see the section for herself, along with the other women.
“It had a green tape, and then it had a sign that said section fermé,” she said.
She asked to talk to a manager, and that manager—also a woman of colour—said she agreed it was “messed up,” but “they had received a list of things that were not essential, and on the list was that section,” Walker said.
The owner, who wasn’t Black, also happened to be in the store, so she came over, too, as Walker’s video shows.
“She tried to say to me, ‘These things can all be found in other aisles,’” said Walker.
That was when things started getting a little more tense.
“I said ‘Ma’am, these pictures—it’s specifically for Black people,’” Walker said, and she gestured to the labels of the Black hair-care products, which all depicted Black people.
“It’s relaxer,” she told CTV. “Who uses relaxer? Black people.”
Non-Black people may not always realize, she said, that the different hair products are not comparable, and that Black hair washed with a shampoo like Pantene Pro-V, or any similar astringent, will be seriously damaged.
“Your hair will literally break,” Walker said, and can end up with “patches of hair missing.”
As for it being essential, “we have to wash our hair, right?” she said.
“Something that may seem like nothing to someone who doesn’t need these products is essential to us as Black people.”
Barbershops and hair salons are closed under lockdown rules, meaning that Black-owned businesses that stock a range of specialized products aren’t open—pharmacies are it.
The owner said she had little to do with it, the video shows. She said she’d given her managers the task of blocking off the right sections with the “list,” without saying more about where the list came from.
She also agreed with them on the spot that it was a problem and ripped off the tape.