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Edmonton woman says she was racially profiled, accused of shoplifting at wellness store

Last Updated Apr 8, 2021 at 7:21 pm CDT

EDMONTON – Holding back tears, Charlene Smith recounts the day she was accused of shoplifting at a store in Edmonton.

Smith believes she was racially profiled because she’s Black.

“It’s unfair. It’s unfortunate. It’s just not right,” she told CityNews.

“This happens over and over and over again. And to so many of those that look like me.”

Last week, Smith was at wellness store Polar Bear Health and Water.

She says it all started when she picked up a product off a shelf, took a picture of it using her cell phone.

When she put her phone back in her bag, she was immediately accused of shoplifting.

“This woman says, ‘Did you put one of these products in your purse?’ So, I turn and I look and say, ‘Oh, no. No, I didn’t.’”

But her answer was not good enough. The clerk demanded to see the contents of her purse in front of the other customers in the store.

“At this point, everybody’s watching. And I’m just like, ‘Here! This is my bag.’ I even lifted up things so she can see the bottom. And then she’s, ‘Oh, oh, sorry.’”

Smith immediately left the store feeling humiliated and violated.

In an Instagram video she took right after the incident–that’s been viewed more than 17,000 times–Smith details her experience.

“It was to show the emotional impact and the trauma that occurs to so many of us on a consistent basis,” she said of the video.

“Because it happens to us all the time.”

As a Black woman, Smith says she’s already had to adapt her behaviour to avoid false accusations, such as making sure she is well-dressed when simply running errands.

Smith says the shop owner has reached out through Facebook messenger, but she believes the apology was not enough.

“There is no acknowledgment or any sort of taking responsibility for the way in which she approached me. For the blatant embarrassment and violation of me in that moment.”

The company declined an interview with CityNews, instead referring us to its comment left on Smith’s video.

“On behalf of Polar Bear Health and Water, I would like to express our sincere apologies to Ms. Charlene Smith regarding the incident at our business on Saturday, April 3. We regret the misunderstanding and do understand and respect Ms. Smith’s perspective on the incident, as highlighted in the video she shared online. As a family-run business that has served the local community for 75 years, it is our policy that *all* customers be made to feel welcome, respected and safe. We know this didn’t happen when Ms. Smith visited our business and we are committed to learning from this experience and refining our policies.

We are proud to be a legacy member of Alberta Avenue business community, but the last 20 years have been among our most challenging. In particular because of an increase in crime throughout the neighbourhood, including shoplifting in our shop. To help prevent shoplifting, we have a sign posted to our front door highlighting that we reserve the right to conduct bag checks. We filed numerous reports to the Edmonton Police Service over the years about theft and to help address these kinds of issues. Unfortunately, we have not received any meaningful response nor support.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with Ms. Smith in person and to formally extend our most sincere apologies to her regarding this incident. We also want to listen, better understand Ms. Smith’s experience and grow from this experience, as people and as a business.

Thank you to everyone that contacted us.”

Smith wants more than just an apology: a promise to do better.

“I want action. I want her to say, ‘Hey, you know what? That was wrong of me to assume.’”