Montreal

Searching for Fred Christie, the Jamaican immigrant who tried to end legalized racism in Canada

In a 4-1 decision 80 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that a Montreal tavern “was strictly within its rights" when its staff refused to serve a local black man. A civil rights group is now fighting for greater recognition of that legal battle and the man who launched it.

Montreal activist seeks to honour unsung hero who lost landmark Supreme Court case 80 years ago

Fo Niemi, who heads the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, is seeking more recognition for the role Fred Christie played in the civil rights struggle in Canada. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

Fred Christie was no stranger to the York Tavern, a popular watering hole in the old Montreal Forum. 

As a season ticket holder, Christie often dropped by the tavern during hockey season. 

But this was the summer of 1936, boxing season, and unbeknown to Christie, the rules at the York were different in boxing season.

He walked in with two friends one Saturday night. The tavern was crowded. Christie slapped 50 cents on the table and asked for three beers. 

The waiter said no. He explained that he'd been told not to serve black people. Christie went to the bar. The bartender told him the same thing. So did the manager. 

So Christie, a private chauffeur, went to court. Eighty years ago this week, the Supreme Court of Canada delivered its ruling.

In a 4-1 decision, the court recognized that staff at the York Tavern had refused to serve Christie "for the sole reason that they had been instructed not to serve coloured persons."

However, the court concluded, merchants are free to serve who they please, and in turning Christie away, the York "was strictly within its rights."

And with that, the highest court in the country enshrined racial discrimination in law. 

It wasn't until Quebec passed its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms in 1975 that Christie vs. York ceased to have effect in the province — and seven years later in the rest of Canada when the federal charter was passed.

Black community rallies

The case has not surfaced in news coverage much since then.

As for Christie, he moved to Saranac Lake, N.Y., in 1944, and there is little on the public record about his life after that.

But a prominent civil rights group in Montreal is using the anniversary of the 1939 Supreme Court decision to seek more recognition for Christie and the legal fight he mounted with the help of Montreal's black community.

"It's of major historical importance to the laws of this country and the fight for racial equality — as important as the battle of Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia," said Fo Niemi, who heads the Center for Research-Action on Race Relations (CRARR).

Niemi is hoping to persuade the federal government to issue a stamp in Christie's honour or have him declared a person of national historical significance.

Dorothy Williams is a historian who teaches black Montreal history at Concordia University. (Dorothy Williams)

In the meantime, local historians are talking to parishioners at Union United Church, Montreal's oldest black congregation, to gather more details about Christie. 

It's known he arrived in Montreal from his native Jamaica in 1919, settling in Verdun. According to one scholar, that neighbourhood might have appealed to Christie because it was not far from the Forum arena , and he was an avid sports fan.

Legalized racism differed from the U.S.

When Christie decided to take the York Tavern to court, Montreal's black community rallied behind him. A young doctor, Kenneth Melville, chaired a committee that raised money to cover his legal costs. 

Melville, also a Jamaican immigrant, was the first black medical student at McGill University and went on to chair the university's pharmacology and therapeutics department. 

The committee raised enough money by collecting nickels and dimes at barbershops, newsstands and churches.

"The black community was quite concerned about trying to acquire rights at a time when human rights legislation didn't exist," said Dorothy Williams, a historian who teaches black Montreal history at Concordia University. 

"They were trying to set up an environment where they would have the same liberties and privileges that their white neighbours had."

Legalized racism operated differently in Canada than in the United States, where a whole regime of segregation was spelled out in the so-called Jim Crow laws.

In the 1930s, the York Tavern operated inside the Montreal Forum, the legendary arena that was long home to the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. (McCord Museum)

"Much of the legalized racism in Canada was enabled through private means," said University of Alberta law Prof. Eric Adams, who has researched the Christie vs. York decision.  

By invoking legal principles such as freedom of commerce, Canadian courts chose not to intervene in areas of social life where racial discrimination was occurring.

"The freedom and rights that mattered to the Supreme Court of Canada were the freedoms to conduct yourself in a racist manner," Adams said.

In the absence of legal principles ensuring equality, which institutions chose to turn away black people at which time fluctuated in a seemingly arbitrary manner.

This helps explain why Christie would have been served at the York Tavern during hockey season but not during boxing season. 

"We didn't have written laws of segregation," said Williams. "In Montreal, certain customs and mores were in place that made it very clear that certain people were not welcome in certain establishments."

Law as a double-edged sword

The decision, which only runs 15 pages, was delivered just days after the start of the Second World War. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret claimed the York's rule of not serving black people did not violate "good morals or public order."

Adelle Blackett, a professor of labour law at McGill University, recalled how reading the decision as a first-year law student left her unsettled.

Blackett, who teaches the case regularly, read the decision again on Monday, 80 years to the day after it was delivered. 

"I still found it painful, frankly, to read," she said.  

Even the dissent is "not exactly a strong articulation of the importance of human rights," said Blackett, a former commissioner of Quebec's Human Rights and Youth Rights Commission.

Henry Davis (1885–1944) issued the lone dissenting opinion in the Christie vs. York decision. (Supreme Court of Canada)

The lone dissenting judge, Henry Davis, argued the freedom of commerce principle shouldn't apply because the York was benefiting from the provincial government's control of the sale of liquor.

"It's not rights language," said Blackett. "It's not: Mr. Christie, by virtue of being a human being deserving of dignity, has the right to be served and not discriminated against."

"That's the kind of specific language that comes through a charter of rights."

The decision helps illustrate the ways in which human rights codes, which began to emerge after the Second World War, contributed to how Canadians interact with each other.

But for legal scholars, Christie vs. York is also a reminder that the law can be a double-edged sword — a source of protection and of oppression.

And that hasn't changed.

"There is no monopoly on wisdom in our legal order," said Adams.

Corrections

  • As CBC initially reported, it was widely believed that Fred Christie moved to Vermont after the Supreme Court ruling. In fact, Christie's descendants have now confirmed that in 1944, Christie and his family moved to Saranac Lake, N.Y., where they bought a farm and Christie worked as a gardener at a nearby Santa's Workshop theme park. He continued to drive back to Montreal for Canadiens' home games, and after he retired, Christie and his wife moved back to Quebec, to the town of Candiac on Montreal's South Shore.
    Dec 17, 2019 1:52 PM ET
  • An earlier version of this story included a provided photo purporting to show Fred Christie. In fact, the photo is of civil rights activist Hugh Burnett.
    Dec 10, 2019 11:39 AM ET

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.