Montreal woman wonders why Black hair care products are 'non-essential' at her drugstore
by Cindy Sherwin and Selena Ross, CTV 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 local woman and her friends doing more than raising eyebrows. After seeing hair products for Black people—but only Black people—taped off in a store, Kelsey Walker followed up.
“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 from a friend who snapped a picture.
Walker didn’t want to “jump the gun” and assume anything, she said, so she went in herself.
“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.
GETTING TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
But Walker and her friends began to investigate—between them they visited three other Uniprix locations in LaSalle, and Walker went to one in nearby Chateauguay. None of those had the same section taped off.
She also messaged Uniprix head office. The company wrote back and said they were “deeply sorry for the isolated situation” Walker had encountered in LaSalle, and that the pharmacy owner had told them that it was an “honest mistake.”
Mousseau said there was indeed a list sent out to Quebec pharmacies, but it wasn’t very specific—and that made the process challenging.
Mousseaus’ group and the Québec Association of Pharmacists Owners did send out a list to pharmacy owners meant “to offer suggestions” about which “large product categories” were essential.
“The list was not so specific as to provide specific recommendations for hair care products,” he wrote.
In the end the groups were “leaving the final decision with each owner.”
He also said that the year-end period is one of pharmacies’ busiest, and the adjustments were done within a 24-hour period, namely Christmas Eve.
“Such adjustments included taking items off the shelves, installing signs indicating that specific products were temporarily unavailable for sale, installing screens in front of specific aisle sections, training pharmacy employees on the new measures, making adjustments to websites, as well as installing signs to informs customers that flyer promotions on non-essential products would not be available,” Mousseau wrote.
“While all these measures were expeditiously applied in good faith by pharmacy teams...involuntary human mistakes were made and quickly corrected as they were noticed by employees or customers.”
He also asked people not to be surprised if other mistakes are made over the coming days, and said they’ll be corrected.
“These are undoubtedly unusual measures in unprecedented times,” he wrote.
For Walker, the answers she’s gotten haven’t exactly satisfied her, especially because she felt the store owner was “deflecting,” she said.
And while hair matters, especially when you risk losing patches of it, there’s a bigger significance, she said.
“I think that it sends a message that ‘We don't care,’” Walker said.
“I think that this speaks volumes to the Black community, especially in that neighbourhood… I think it speaks volumes to us as Black people, seeing how important we really are.”