July 11, 1936: Fred Christie and several friends went to watch a hockey game at the Montreal Forum. Afterwards they went to a local tavern where the bartender refused to serve Christie on account of the bar’s policy against blacks. Christie complained and called the police in protest but to little effect.
This would lead to the famous Christie v. York case.
S.C.R. 139 is a famous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada where the Court allowed private establishments to discriminate on the basis of free enterprise.
Fred Christie was a black chauffeur in Montreal. He immigrated from Jamaica. His courageous act was before Viola Desmond and Rosa Parks. Christie paved the way for others to stand up against racism in Canada, sadly he died without any honours for his bravery.
Christie, a Canadiens fan for years, worked hard as a private chauffeur to be able to afford his season tickets. Like many fans, he liked to watch Maurice “The Rocket” Richard play and then go to a tavern with some friends to dissect the game.
On the evening of July 11th, 1936, Fred and some friends visited the Forum’s tavern. Fred put 50 cents on the table and ordered 3 steins of beer. The barman refused to serve him. The barman and the assistant manager explained that the “house rules” prohibited serving a “negro” (Fred’s preferred identifier).
Fred argued that the “house rules” were not fair and that he and his friends expected to be served like everyone else. His pleas fell on deaf ears and so Fred called the police – without avail. Humiliated and defeated, Fred and his friends went home.
Unable to stomach discrimination, Fred Christie sued the tavern for $200 in damages for the pain and suffering of being humiliated in front of so many people.
At trial, Christie was awarded costs and an additional $25. The judge found that section 33 of the Quebec Licence Act, which stated that “No licensee for a restaurant may refuse without reasonable cause, to give food to travellers”, was violated by the bar’s policy.
On appeal, the Court of King’s Bench found in favour of the bar on account that section 33 did not apply, rather, “a merchant or trader is free to carry on his business in the manner he conceives to be best for that business”.
THE COURT’S OPINION:
In a 4 to 1 decision, the Court found that section 33 of the Quebec License Act did not apply and the bar was able to refuse service to whomever it chose.
The Court noted that as a general rule a merchant can do business with whomever they may choose and has complete freedom of business. Reading the Act strictly, Christie was not a “traveller” and was not “seeking food”. Moreover, the Court found no public policy reason to read the Act broadly. Thus, the Court could not do anything about the bar’s practice.
Justice Davis, alone in dissent, held that the spirit of section 33 is to prevent arbitrary discrimination such as the current situation and should be interpreted as such.
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