CONTESTING RACIAL INEQUALITY: REVISITING THE HISTORY OF BLACK MONTREALERS' QUEST FOR JUSTICE
Montreal, February 2, 2015
Frederick Johnson was a Black Montrealer who worked at the Queen's Hotel. On March 12, 1898, Mr. Johnson and a female friend went to the Montreal Academy of Music, then located at 13 Victoria Avenue, between Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine Street West in Montreal. Although they had already purchased their tickets, management denied them access to their orchestra seats, saying that ''colored people'' could not occupy those seats (Blacks were restricted to the dress circle). When both protested, they were expelled from the theater.
Racial segregation in Montreal’s public establishments was a common and legal practice at the time.
Humiliated, Mr. Johnson sued the theater, demanding $500 in compensation for breach of contract and the attack on his honor. In 1899, the Superior Court and the Court of the Queen's Bench (today, the Court of Appeal) ruled in his favor, basing their decision on the fact that, according to the contractual agreement, once Mr. Johnson purchased the tickets, the two seats in the orchestra would be reserved for him. Furthermore, it was not indicated anywhere that “colored people” could not occupy orchestra seats. The court granted him $50 in compensation for moral damages, plus legal fees.
In his decision, Mr. Justice John Archibald of the Superior Court wrote:
It would be trite to speak of slavery in this connection, and yet the regulation in question is undoubtedly a survival of prejudices created by the system of negro slavery. Slavery never had any wide influence in this country. (... ) Although it was only in 1834 that an act of the imperial parliament finally abolishing slavery throughout the British colonies was passed, yet long before that, in 1803, Chief Justice Osgood had declared slavery illegal in the province of Quebec. Our constitution is and always has been essentially democratic, and it does not admit of distinctions of races or classes. All men are equal before the law and each has equal rights as a member of the community.
In addition to Mr. Johnson's case, there were two other known legal challenges by Black Montrealers, one in 1919 by Mr. Reynolds, who was refused his seat of choice in the Loews Theatre; and the other in 1939, which went as far as the Supreme Court of Canada, by Mr. Fred Christie, a Black chauffeur, who was denied access to the Forum Tavern (In Mr. Christie’s case, the Supreme Court ruled against him and in favor of freedom of commerce, in the well-known case of Christie v. York, arguably the first case of anti-Black racism to reach the Supreme Court).
Little is known today of these three men, who entered our legal history books and whose struggles easily challenge any contemporary assertion that legalized racial segregation and discrimination were not part of Quebec and Canadian heritage, as was recently put forward during the debate about Blackface. Much has been written and glamorized, of course, about how Montreal received Jackie Robinson in 1946, but little was documented about how life was for Black Montrealers like Mr. Johnson, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Christie.
Our society has greatly changed since the advent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 that grew out of the Second World War. It took another twelve years before the Canadian Parliament adopted the Canadian Declaration of Rights, and fifteen for Quebec to implement in 1963, a law banning racial and ethnic discrimination in public accommodation, access to services, and employment. In 1975, twenty-seven years later, Quebec adopted the Charte des droits et libertés de la personn, followed in 1976 by the Canadian Human Rights Act, and finally in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But substantive racial equality still remains an elusive goal for many Black and other racialized Montrealers. Progress, both social and economic, still goes hand-in-hand with hardship, tragedy and exclusion. But each time an act of racial injustice occurred, Montrealers of all colors galvanized and fought for change: the 1982 public inquiry into racism in the taxi industry, the 1988 public hearings on the shooting of Anthony Griffin, and the 1991 coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting of Marcellus François were important milestones for racial equality.
Some may wonder whether change has effectively occurred, because reports of race discrimination in policing, the criminal justice system, employment and other sectors have not decreased over the years. The only thing that seems to have diminished is government support for community organizations working for racial and social justice. It has reached a point where the number of Black and other advocacy groups that defined and drove the movement for reform of the 1980s and 1990s are now almost non-existent.
Yet the determination, creativity and resilience of victims of racial injustice still manage to bring about change and progress. These are individuals, mostly Black, who breathe new life into the constitutional principle of equal protection and benefit of the law, often at great personal expense. Their actions not only reaffirm the duty to challenge not only unjust laws that degrade the human personality, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, but also unjust application of laws and other deeds that violate basic human rights.
It is thus telling that some of most important victories against racism in Quebec in the last ten years have been legal actions by Black individuals before the courts, starting with the first decision in a criminal case on racial profiling in Quebec in 2005 (the Campbell decision), the most comprehensive and important court decision on racial profiling in 2012 (the Debellefeuille decision), the first court decision on systemic racism in employment in Quebec in 2013 (the Tanisma decision) and the first court decision on intersectionality and race intersecting with sexual orientation in Quebec in 2014 (the Sojourner decision) (N.B.: the last three decisions were cases supported by CRARR).
There are, of course, other ground-breaking legal victories against racism resulting from determined actions by Black individuals worth mentioning: the first case brought against neo-Nazis in Montreal before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal by the Quebec Human Rights Commission on behalf of a Black man (in 2006), the first racial profiling case in the Montreal public transit system confirmed by the Quebec Human Rights Commission, involving a Black teenage student (in 2007), the first (and, to date, only) decision by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal involving race discrimination and an English-speaking Black person (in 2010) and the first decision on racial profiling in policing by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal (in 2012) (N.B.: the first three decisions involve cases assisted by CRARR).
Unfortunately, there are still too few individuals today with the means to seek racial justice, and there are still fewer government or civil society agencies with the necessary will, knowledge or freedom to achieve the promises of our Charters of Rights and Freedoms. The legal battle against racial discrimination in Quebec may have stalled because of institutional resistance, but the individual resolve, I believe, has not diminished in the face of adversity.
Those among us who believe that no person is of lesser value or worth because of his or her skin color, can be comforted by the fact that as long as there is recorded Black History, and as long as many of us learn the lessons of both our official and our hidden History, the legacy of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Christie shall live on.