Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Diner owner fleeing Morris

Jamaican-born woman says she can't take discrimination

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MORRIS -- Same town. Same restaurant. And an all-too-familiar story.

For the second time this year, the owner of a Morris restaurant plans to close the business due to what she calls discriminatory and "disrespectful" situations.

Thea Morris, the Jamaican-born owner and chief cook, described a series of incidents -- from groups of people repeatedly walking out of the diner before their orders could be taken, to a longtime resident who explained her business was dropping "because you're black."

"It's not going to get any better, whatever force I'm fighting," Morris said Monday. "I'm not going to succeed. I'm going back to Winnipeg where stuff like this is insignificant. Winnipeg is big. This is small. It kills business."

The final straw, said Morris, came after she had tried to recruit staff on Kijiji. She received a reply that read, "From: You guys still chasing colors (sic) out of your towns out there? I believe the KKK has a chapter in South Dakota you should join! You can respond to by replying to this email."

There isn't any such working address. But although the reply could have come from anywhere in the world, Morris is convinced it was sent by a local. Neither does she think all of these incidents -- which include one customer defecating in a washroom urinal -- are just coincidence.

'There's definitely people out there who don't want to see people who are different in Morris' -- Thea Morris, the Jamaican-born owner and chief cook of Thea's Diner in Morris

"There's definitely people out there who don't want to see people who are different in Morris," Morris added. "Different from them, anyway."

Morris was referring to the previous owners of a restaurant in the same Main Street location, who closed their doors in April following a series of homophobic verbal attacks. The owners were gay, and the story garnered national attention that flooded the town with bad press. Email inundated the town office reading, "Redneck Town of the Year" and much worse.

The closure of Pots N' Hands came on the heels of another much-publicized incident in which the editor-in-chief of the now defunct Morris Mirror, a local circular, published an editorial condemning the Idle No More movement, citing that "in some cases, natives are acting like terrorists in their own country. Indians/natives want it all but corruption and laziness prevent some of them from working for it."

Morris knew the history, but opened her diner on June 26 anyway.

"I just never thought it would be an issue," she explained. "I thought I had thicker skin. I don't get any verbal abuse. They're a little more subtle with me. In the end, though, the results are the same."

Morris said business was strong at the outset. Then came the groups of "well-dressed" people, she said, who arrived every Friday, sat down and had a waitress come and hand them menus. They would order drinks, but before the waitress returned with the beverages, they were gone or leaving.

A similar incident had occurred "at least 10 times" during her five months of operation, and five times in the last two months alone.

"They dress really nice," Morris explained. "And they say nothing. They just leave. I've never seen that all the time I've worked."

The fresh allegations of discrimination left Morris Mayor Gavin van der Linde "shocked."

"Wow," said van der Linde on Monday when informed of the details by the Free Press. "That's very unfortunate, for sure. That's unacceptable that people would be that ignorant to make her (Morris) feel that way.

"It feels pretty paralyzing. I thought we had made great strides since the last two incidents, in the right direction. The vast majority of people in the community came out in their support (for the Pots N' Hands owners). It's very disappointing."

Morris admits she started to "get paranoid."

She was confused and wondered why her business was declining despite mostly positive reviews for her food. But the response to the Kijiji listing -- no matter who was the author and where -- left her shaken.

Morris reported the incident to local RCMP, but was told there was no way to determine the origin of the response.

But her mind was already made up to end her lease at the end of December.

"I feel like I need to get out of here," she said. "When they behave like that, you start to feel a little uncomfortable. You don't want to stick around. It makes me feel very, very discouraged."

Morris never contacted the media and had planned to leave Morris without any controversy.

But she had already printed leaflets containing her explanation -- including the Kijiji response -- she had planned to hand out to customers during her last week of operation in December.

"People need to know," she said. "Because this (email) leads to this (empty booths). And I really don't want to spend my time tackling situations that are hopeless. It almost seems to take generation after generation after generation for people to open up their minds."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 27, 2013 A3


Updated on Wednesday, November 27, 2013 at 6:28 AM CST: Fixes headline, replaces photo

6:50 AM: adds video

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