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What restrictions may a business impose on customers?

We all know no shirt and no shoes means no service, but stores, restaurants, and some other businesses often find other ways to refuse service or even sometimes bar customers.

Generally, a private business has broad rights to ban customers or impose restrictions on them as long as those policies are legal and don’t violate anyone’s human rights.

Each province has its own human rights code and there’s also the federal Human Rights Act, which say there are certain grounds on which a person can’t be discriminated against. Those include:

  • race;
  • national or ethnic origin;
  • colour;
  • religion;
  • age;
  • sex (includes pregnancy and gender identity);
  • sexual orientation;
  • marital status;
  • family status;
  • disability;
  • religion;
  • conviction for an offence for which they’ve been pardoned or in respect of which a record suspension has been ordered;

Included in disability is the use of service animals. They’re not seen as “pets,” and a business can’t deny a customer who has one. They likewise can’t levy any surcharges for a service animal, although they could charge for any damages it incurs as long as those charges are part of an existing policy.

The act also says it is discriminatory to deny any good, service, facility, or accommodation based on any of those grounds.

Retail stores often ban people caught shoplifting; casinos turn away known cheaters; or a workplace could protect an employee by banning their abusive ex-spouse from entering

It’s not unusual to see stores impose limits on customer entry, often relating to large groups of young kids or teens, who are seen as a shoplifting threat. This veers into thornier legal territory as it could be classified as age discrimination.

However, discrimination isn’t always as simple as “I was denied service, so I was discriminated against.” There can be more nuance and mitigating factors in the law.

Of course, there are situations where businesses must discriminate, even on otherwise prohibited grounds.

A minor couldn’t claim age discrimination if a shop won’t sell them cigarettes or they’re turned away at a liquor store. Businesses serving alcohol are typically expected to deny service to someone who is clearly intoxicated.

Even if you appear to have been discriminated against, you might have to prove that it actually impacted you in a negative way.

In 2004, B.C. resident Ralph Stopps was denied membership at a women’s-only gym. It may sounds like discrimination, but the B.C. human hights tribunal rejected his claim. While it found he was clearly denied membership based on his gender, he failed to demonstrate two important things: that his human dignity was adversely affected by the rejection and that he somehow suffered as a result.

The tribunal also concluded his case was basically a political stunt, he fully expected to be rejected, and did it only to make a human rights complaint. 

Competing rights can also complicate a discrimination claim.

In the Stopps case, the tribunal also considered that some members went to that club specifically for a female-only space where they feel more comfortable and safe. Stopps had rights, but so did the female members.

In 2012, a Toronto woman complained after being denied a haircut by a barber whose religion forbid him to touch a woman outside his family. While the woman was clearly turned away because of her gender, the barber’s religion is also an important human right.

Your rights are constitutionally enshrined, but business owners have their rights as well. Check your province’s or territory’s human rights code and seek legal advice if you want to launch a discrimination claim.


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The Canadian Human Rights Act: