A Montreal gym is facing allegations of discrimination after several potential customers of Algerian descent say they were turned away.
In two separate incidents, three people who recently tried to sign up for or renew memberships at an Éconofitness gym say they were unjustifiably denied service by the same manager.
Ramdhane Belhabchia, 32, made two unsuccessful attempts in one week to renew his gym membership. His first attempt was last Monday, where Belhabchia said a hostile interaction with manager Arvin Sokappadu transpired almost instantly.
"He asked me for my ID, I showed him my ID on my phone, and he was checking that for 45 seconds, one minute," said Belhabchia, who says he's been a member at the Éconofitness located near Berri-UQAM metro station for three years.
After being asked to see his ID a second time, Belhabchia says he offered to answer any questions Sokappadu may have, to which the manager allegedly responded: "You know what, sir, I don't like your face; I don't like your attitude; you're not allowed to the gym; I'm not renewing your membership."
Belhabchia, who is French of Algerian origin, says he has had one other difficult encounter with this manager before, describing a "small conflict" on one occasion after Belhabchia says he forgot a gym towel.
But last Monday, Belhabchia says the situation got out of hand. After convincing Sokappadu to talk outside, he says the manager called the police.
"I was very frustrated," said Belhabchia. "Basically he created a situation and now today, I cannot have access to that gym for absolutely no reason."
Sokappadu declined CBC News' request for an interview. Belhabchia says he returned to the gym on Thursday with his initial request to renew his membership, and was denied a second time.
I cannot have access to that gym for absolutely no reason. - Ramdhane Belhabchia
Convinced this was a case of discrimination, Belhabchia filed a complaint with the gym, brought in a lawyer to file a human rights complaint and posted about his experience on Facebook.
"I mean, [Sokappadu] was just a racist for me and there was no good reason to deny me," he said.
Éconofitness' head office confirmed it has received a complaint regarding the location near Berri-UQAM and have launched an internal investigation following the allegations of racism. The Quebec-based company also declined a request for an interview.
"Rest assured that Éconofitness is taking the situation very, very seriously," said a statement from the company.
'It was exactly the same case'
Kahina Lasfer and her husband, also both of Algerian descent, say they were denied service at the gym by the same manager just a few weeks earlier.
Lasfer says she didn't think the treatment was racially motivated until she saw Belhabchia's Facebook post.
"It was exactly the same case," said Lasfer. Lasfer said she and her husband tried to sign up for a gym membership in early August and was met with resistance from Sokappadu.
"He said they were not taking new clients because of COVID," said Lasfer. CBC News called the gym on Friday to inquire about a membership and was told that it was in fact taking new clients. There was no mention of COVID-19.
When her husband pressed the manager, asking him why that policy wasn't publicized on the gym's website or at the establishment, Lasfer claims Sokappadu became "very cold and serious" and told them to leave or else he'd call the police.
According to Lasfer, Sokappadu said it was his gym and he had the right to choose who he let in.
"It's like we returned to apartheid, like we were begging to get in somewhere. It's humiliating," said Lasfer. "It's sad that in 2021, there's still this kind of behaviour."
Belhabchia and Lasfer, both originally from France, say the manager made it known to them that he, too, was French.
The prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in the country led Belhabchia to believe this is why he was targeted, having faced racism during his 25 years living in France.
He said what he experienced last Monday is reminiscent of that same treatment.
"Because you're Arab … they can refuse you the gym and they can call the police," he said.
"I think he just wanted to refuse me because of my race."