Fondé en 1983 --Unis pour la diversité et l'égalité raciale


Montreal, December 9, 2019 — December 9, 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of one of the darkest chapters in Canada’s civil rights history, and the occasion merits official recognition as it speaks to the barriers facing many Black, Indigenous and other racialized people in Canada then and now.

Fred Christie v. York Corporation is a landmark Supreme Court decision released on December 9, 1939, that made freedom of commerce prevail over racial equality.
In July 1936, Fred Christie, a “negro” immigrant from Jamaica who worked as a private chauffeur, went with two friends, one white and the other “coloured”, to the Montreal Forum’s York Tavern for a beer.

They were told that waiters had been instructed not to serve “coloured persons.” Christie was a Montreal Canadiens’ season ticket holder at the Forum and had previously frequently visited the York Tavern between hockey periods. Unbeknownst to him, the policy regarding who could be served at the Tavern had changed at the end of the previous hockey season.

Christie refused to leave and called the police to contest the rule, to no avail. Christie and his friends then left. Thanks to a legal fund set up by Kenneth Melville, the first recorded Black medical student at McGill University, he sued the Tavern for $200 for humiliation.

At first, the Superior Court ruled in Christie’s favor on the grounds that the refusal was illegal under ss. 19 and 33 of the Quebec Licence Act (“No licensee for a restaurant may refuse, without reasonable cause, to give food to travelers”), and awarded him $25.

The Court of the King’s Bench (today, the Court of Appeal) overturned the lower court’s decision, on the grounds that “in the absence of any specific law, a merchant or trader is free to carry on his business he conceives to be best for that business.” It also ruled that Christie was “not a traveler who was asking to be furnished with food in a restaurant.”

Christie appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. On December 9, 1939, writing for the majority in a 4 to 1 decision, Justice Rinfret stated: “The general principle of the law of Quebec is that of complete freedom of commerce. Any merchant is free to deal as he may choose with any individual member of the public. […] “in refusing to serve the appellant it was well within its rights; that its business is a private enterprise for gain; and that, in acting as it did, the respondent was merely protecting its business interest”.

The Supreme Court also supported the view that Christie was not “a traveler asking for a meal in a restaurant… he was only a person asking for a glass of beer in a tavern.”

More disturbingly, the Court also stated that the tavern’s rule not to serve Christie was not contrary to “good morals or public order.” With this decision, the Court legalized racism in commercial establishments.

Civil rights laws prohibiting racial discrimination were not enacted until after the end of World War II, when Quebec began to ban discrimination in public and commercial establishments in 1963 with changes to the Hotels Act.

Fred Christie’s battle against racism began a decade before Viola Desmond fought racial segregation in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.

“It’s time for Canadians and governments at all levels to officially recognize Mr. Christie’s rightful place in Canadian and Quebec legal history. Like Ms. Desmond, he stood up to Canadian Jim Crow practices with exemplary courage and dignity. His case has justifiably become mandatory reading in Canadian constitutional law courses,” said CRARR Executive Director Fo Niemi.

“We must honor Mr. Christie for his battle as we have honored Ms. Desmond for hers, because we must never forget the battle for racial equality of this man and of the Black community of Montreal before and after the Second War,” Niemi added. “And because we are still not free from racism in public and commercial services, as consumer racial profiling still exists.”

CRARR proposes that the official recognition of Fred Christie’s struggle includes:
• An official plaque at the AMC Forum, formerly the Montreal Forum;
• The official designation of Mr. Christie as a ”Person of National Historic Significance”;
• A stamp in his honor, and
• An official tribute to Mr. Christie at next year’s Black History Month events.