An elder from Muscowpetung First Nation, located roughly 50 kilometres northeast of Regina, is calling for more to be done after an experience she had at a Walmart last fall.
Joyce Keepness says she went into the Prince of Wales Drive location in east Regina on Oct. 21, 2021, to buy 10 gift cards for $100 each, ahead of a grandmothers’ gathering her community was hosting.
However, the 69-year-old Saulteaux woman says that when she went to buy them, she was confronted by a sales associate who accused her of buying them for fraudulent purposes.
“I couldn’t even answer because I was in shock,” Keepness said during a rally outside the store on Friday.
Keepness said she left without buying the gift cards, but that Emmalyn Olsen — a visibly white colleague who works with her at the Muscowpetung Health Centre — returned later that day to buy them on Keepness’s behalf.
“They didn’t ask me what my intentions were with them, they just gave them to me right away,” Olsen said.
Both Olsen and Keepness say that when the pair brought their concerns to the customer service desk immediately after, they were denied a sit-down conversation with the manager.
After mulling over the situation for a couple of days, Keepness decided to reach out to the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism for help reporting the incident.
“This is not the first time I’ve experienced this horrible racism — I’ve lived with it all my life. But it’s about time I fight back,” she remembered thinking.
Keepness said the coalition followed up with the manager of the local store, who forwarded the request on to Walmart on a corporate level.
Discrimination ‘not substantiated’: Walmart
After written statements from Keepness and Olsen, and an internal investigation by Walmart Canada, an employee with the company’s human resources department reached out months later in an emailed letter.
It said that, based on “carefully considered” evidence, Keepness’ claims were “not substantiated” and the employees involved didn’t do anything against Walmart’s harassment and discrimination policy.
“This value of gift cards [at or over $1,000] can raise concern that the purchaser may be a victim of fraud,” Janet Warner-Duncan, Walmart Canada’s case manager of customer experience, wrote in the March 16 letter.
“In such circumstances, the associate may contact a manager to take appropriate steps to help safeguard the customer. In this case, the associate inquired with you directly as they incorrectly understood this to be the process for third-party gift card transactions specifically.”
Warner-Duncan wrote that management has since told employees to flag a manager over “all concerns that a customer may be a victim of fraud” and that “there will be no further action related to this concern.”
In a statement to CBC News on Friday, Walmart Canada said it takes “concerns of this nature seriously and investigate[s] them thoroughly.”
A spokesperson called the incident a “misunderstanding” about the company’s processes around ordering large quantities of gift cards.
Calls for education, understanding
Keepness said Walmart’s response frustrated her, noting she would have preferred to see an apology and an invitation to meet with the workers involved to have a sharing circle.
“Some of our First Nations elders can come in to work with their employees and let them know about our treaties — educate them on what our people experience on a daily basis,” she offered. “We are not all thieves. We do work and our people have money to spend.”
Muscowpetung Chief Melissa Tavita said she stands behind the elder, noting she hopes Keepness’ story educates other retail workers about being mindful of their treatment of Indigenous customers.
“If more people spoke up in regards to this kind of action and treatment, I think that more awareness would be brought to people,” Tavita said. “It saddens me that not only my children but the children in our community — all First Nations children — will have to grow up in this lifestyle, if we don’t change it today.”