UW historian's new book deals with racism in Canada

WATERLOO, Ont. -- Racism is looked upon as outrageous and offensive these days in Canada. But this has not always been the case.

Indeed, decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, well into this century, failed noticeably to move beyond racist dictates of the day, sometimes described as "common sense."

That's one finding of a new book by University of Waterloo Prof. Jim Walker, history. The book is entitled, Race, Rights and the Law of the Supreme Court of Canada, and is the result of a good deal of research in recent years into historic cases where race was the basic issue.

Walker feels that while in Canada, the Supreme Court has made a number of rulings related to racism it has never taken the lead in the fight against racial discrimination, after the manner of the Supreme Court in the United States.

"In Canada, our Supreme Court has long been active in this area," he said, "but it has consistently upheld values that we think of today as not very admirable, though at the time the court was clearly following the morality of the day . . . that is, a majority of Canadian voters would clearly have accepted racism. Our perspective has changed a very great deal in the past two or three decades. But the Canadian Supreme Court has never led the way; it has historically upheld a moral view of the world that we no longer accept."

The UW historian bases his view on four Supreme Court cases: Quong Wing versus The King; Christie versus York Corp.; Noble and Wolf versus Alley; and Narine-Singh versus Attorney General of Canada.

"How does one know, living here in the '90s, what racism was like?" Walker asked. "Well, one way is to look at what the members of minority groups were complaining about, through the courts. It tells us what they didn't like about their lives and their communities, and the law . . . it tells us what they suffered from. The cards may have been stacked against these individuals but they stated their cases and so the minority perspective is there to see in the court records."

The Quong Wing case involved a Saskatchewan law passed in 1912 that made it illegal for a Chinese Canadian to employ a white woman. Quong Wing, a naturalized citizen, had hired two women to work in his restaurant in Moose Jaw, Sask., and this led to a charge and a five dollar fine.

He refused to pay the fine and with the support of the Chinese community took the case to the Supreme Court, where he lost. It was a verdict that Walker feels would be considered shocking today, though it was in line with prevalent moral values of the time.

The second involved a black Canadian, Fred Christie, who was refused service in a bar in The Forum, the Montreal hockey arena, in 1936. He had ordered a stein of beer and was told by the waiter that he couldn't serve him. The police were called and Christie later decided to sue for damages.

The case wound up in the Supreme Court in 1939. In brief, the court decided that this kind of discrimination was permissible. This decision was referred to as recently as 1961, in support of another case involving discrimination in Alberta. So once the Supreme Court decision was handed down, it became, in the absence of new legislation to change things, the law of the land. Thus did racism become systemic in our society, Walker noted.

The third case involved Bernard Wolf, a Jewish businessman in London, Ont., who tried to buy a cottage at the Beach O'Pines, on Lake Huron, south of Grand Bend. The Beach O'Pines Protective Association protested, arguing that a covenant on the property did not permit such a sale.

The Ontario Court of Appeal found the covenant legal so the issue was taken to the Supreme Court. While the latter body ruled in favor of Wolf, it did so only on a technicality; that is, it did not rule on the legality of the covenant.

The final case involved a Trinidadian of South Asian ancestry who was accepted into the Canadian Army but was then rejected by the Department of Immigration because he was a member of the "Asian race." Eventually, the Supreme Court upheld the Department and ordered the man deported.

Although the focus of Walker's new book is on the above four cases, he has examined a number of others that never got to the Supreme Court, including the racial discrimination case in Alberta. It involved a railway porter who was also the head of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Colored people. He was refused a room in a Calgary motel. He sued and lost in the Alberta Supreme Court, which relied on the Supreme Court of Canada's decision in the Fred Christie case.

In his new book, Walker has also referred to the racial discrimination issue in the town of Dresden, Ont., and to the case of Viola Desmond in Halifax who was roughed up in a New Glasgow movie house because she refused to sit in the balcony, to which blacks had traditionally been assigned.

Another case, outlined in some detail in the book, involved a black Canadian man in Oakville, Ont., who, became engaged to a white woman. The woman's mother wrote to the Ku Klux Klan for assistance in preventing the marriage. This led to what the Klan later called its first "direct action" in Canada, in 1930.

About 75 Clansmen, most of them reportedly from Hamilton, travelled to Oakville where they marched through the streets in hooded uniforms, burned a large cross at Main and Third streets, drove the woman to her mother's home and promised to "attend to" the man.

Walker said that examining what brought people into the courts is surely an indication as to what concerned them at the time; court records show what was important to people.

"Taking their concerns to the highest court in the land is not an easy thing to do," he said, noting that Christie's case became something of a crusade within the Montreal community. Christie had no wealthy benefactors and financing the cost of his appeal had to involve a vast number of people, many of whom contributed as little as a nickel or a dime. The wide number of contributors indicates, Walker said, a widespread interest in and concern over the issue.

To flesh out what he was able to glean from court records, Walker visited Montreal where he was fortunate to meet the man who had been the publicity director for Christie's committee. The man had kept the records from his fund-raising activities in 1936, and gave them to the UW historian who hopes to turn them over, eventually, to the National Archives.


Contact: Jim Walker, (519) 888-4567, ext. 3706

Written by Bob Whitton for the UW News Bureau, (519) 888-4444

UW experts/releases: http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infonews/

Release no. 69 -- April 16, 1998