Landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1939
Today, those of us who are Black know that the struggle for basic rights as citizens can be as frustrating as it is demeaning for those living in a society in which almost all aspects of life is predicated on race and racism.
As such, it’s not unusual for simple everyday interactions with police, other institutions of authority or even businesses can lead to unintended situations.
So it was on the evening of on Saturday, July 11, 1936, when Fred Christie a 34 year old Jamaican born Canadian together with two friends — one Black, the other French Canadian, Emile King and Steven St. Jean, stopped by the York Tavern at the old Montreal Forum for a beer, as they might have done on so many occasions before.
You see Mr. Christie was said to be something of a hockey fanatic and a season-ticket holder of the Montreal Canadiens so it’s likely that he patronized the York Tavern every once in a while.
Well, that evening, the staff decided that they wouldn’t serve Mr. Christie because he is Black. Apparently their decision hinged on policies that wavered from one season to the other at the Tavern.
Like so many innocent folks (he was a chauffeur) forced to take a stand to salvage their dignity, Mr. Christie, humiliated and beaten down in front of his friends took the York Tavern to court, seeking $200 in damages.
At trial, he was awarded costs and an additional $25, judgment based on Section 33 of the Quebec License Act: “No licensee for a restaurant may refuse without reasonable cause, to give food to travellers.”
Emboldened by the atmosphere of insidious racism that permeated so much of the society at the time. The proprietor of the York Tavern appealed the decision all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Bolstered by the Black community Montreal, which initiated the Fred Christie Defence Committee, under the leadership of another Jamaican, Kenneth Melville, the first Black medical student at McGill University, Mr. Christie was able to keep up the fight
Today, jurists and ordinary Canadians look back on the decision rendered by the highest court in the land in December 1939 as one of the saddest periods for justice in Canada, when it ruled in a 4 to 1 decision that based on “Freedom of commerce” that tavern owners had no legal duties to serve everyone.
In his writing, one of the justices offered that that “in refusing to sell beer to [Christie], the [York’s] employees did so quietly, politely and without causing any scene or commotion whatsoever.”
The problem of course, he suggested was Mr. Christie who “persisted in demanding beer after he had been so refused and went to the length of calling the police, which was entirely unwarranted by the circumstances.”
And so in one fell swoop, as the cliché goes the Supreme Court of Canada sidestepped an opportunity to rule against the scourge of racism that kept a wide cross-section Canadians as second class citizen and added another layer of protection for the racists.
According to information that eventually emerged on Mr. Christie. He moved away from the Verdun area where he lived for much the time since he moved to Canada in 1919, to the Park Extension area and then eventually to out to Saranac Lake in New York, where he lived out his life with his wife, Julie Osler, a white woman of German descent.
A symposium will be held commemorating the life and activism of Fred Christie, and examining the present-day situation of racism and the law in Canada on Sat, 29 February 2020. From 1-6PM. At Chancellor Day Hall Maxwell Cohen Moot Court (NCDH 100), 3644 rue Peel, Montreal,