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DAWN WALTON in Toronto INGRID PERITZ in Montreal

A Quebec Human Rights Commission decision that Costco Canada Inc.'s refusal to sell a membership for its warehouse club store to a man on social assistance amounts to discrimination is being hailed as a victory for low-income Canadians.

"It's an important ruling," said Ginette L'Heureux, spokeswoman for the commission. "It says you can't discriminate against people because they're not lucky at economic issues. People on social assistance should be able to have access to public services like everyone else."

The recently released decision stems from a complaint made by 42-year-old André Gagnon, a resident of the Quebec City suburb of Val-Bélair.

In 1996, Mr. Gagnon let his Costco membership, which offers discounts on a variety of products the chain carries, lapse. But when he tried to renew it, he was turned down by a Quebec City store. At the time, he had recently become unemployed after working as a sales clerk.

"I thought it was ridiculous -- my money is as good as anyone else's," he said in an interview yesterday.

After being snubbed by the store, he returned with several witnesses. Then he took his complaint to the Quebec Human Rights Commission arguing that he was refused membership because he was unemployed and receiving social assistance.

Mr. Gagnon, a divorced father of two, described the ruling as a victory for all low-income Canadians.

"I did it because everyone should have the right to make purchases where they want," Mr. Gagnon said.

The commission noted that Costco's membership policy directly or indirectly excludes social assistance recipients since they are not members of a professional association or corporation as recognized by the Burnaby, B.C.-based chain.

Mr. Gagnon received $4,500 in damages from the company as a settlement, but has agreed not to further litigate the case.

Ironically, since winning his case, Mr. Gagnon is no longer on welfare. Last year he bought a garden-shed business, and was tending to customers yesterday between taking phone calls from journalists.

"I'm proud, because this should at least give low-income families and people struggling on minimum wage the right to buy things at a reasonable price," Mr. Gagnon said.

But the commission's decision may also be playing catch-up.

The company, which operates 59 warehouse stores and has more than 1 million members across the country, has already modified its membership requirements to be more inclusive.

"Five years ago we were much more restrictive on which types of employment we allowed [people to hold]to become members and we have opened it up," said Ed Marron, Costco's executive vice-president and chief operating officer.

"There were some very, very stringent [rules]"

As long as a person either works for or is retired from one of a variety of industries including the media, education, medicine, a financial institution, railroad or any government agency, the can buy a membership for $45 a year.

Still, Costco has agreed to "modify its policy for all its warehouse stores in the province of Quebec and will cease, effective immediately, to refuse memberships to social assistance recipients who request it."

Costco Wholesale Corp. of Issaquah, Wash., is the parent of Costco Canada.

One human rights lawyer said the decision could mark an important advancement in human rights thinking in Canada. While the courts and tribunals have given some major victories to women and the gay and lesbian community, they haven't been as active in issues concerning the poor.

Mr. Gagnon said he plans to return to shop at Costco, but he hasn't obtained a membership card yet. "I'm going to let the dust settle first," he said.

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