In 1939, a Supreme Court judgment laid out an important chapter of Montreal history in minute detail.
But for the last 83 years, that chapter has rarely been reopened.
“The appellant, who is a negro, entered a tavern owned and operated by the respondent, in the City of Montreal, and asked to be served a glass of beer,” the judgment said. “But the waiters refused him for the sole reason that they had been instructed not to serve coloured persons.”
The man ended up before the country’s highest court after claiming “the sum of $200 for the humiliation he suffered.”
It was a rare official challenge to the entrenched racism of that time and the consequences of the judgment reverberated throughout the following decades.
Fred Christie was a Jamaican immigrant who worked as a chauffeur.
After settling in Montreal, he also became a passionate hockey fan, says Concordia University historian Dorothy Williams.
“He frequented the Montreal Forum quite frequently because he had season tickets to the hockey games,” said Williams, who has studied the story.
During the hockey season, Christie and his friends would also regularly have drinks at the York Tavern, which was attached to the Forum.
But on Saturday, July 11, 1936, everything changed when Christie took out 50 cents to order three glasses of beer to split with his two friends – one Black, the other a white French Canadian.
The waiter refused to serve him.
“He’d gone in with his friends to sit down and have a beer like he normally would have been able to do, so he was quite put off by this waiter telling him that he couldn’t have a beer because he was a negro,” said Williams.
The waiter did not attempt to “disguise” what was happening, she said.
“He wasn’t trying to sugar coat it. He made it very clear: ‘I can’t serve you. We have a new owner here. He will not allow us to serve coloured persons,’” Williams said.
Christie had been served there before, so what had changed aside from a possible new owner?
The Canadian Encyclopedia, in its article on this episode of history, suggests it could have been tied to some upcoming boxing matches — a sport that tended to bring out “racial tensions and violence.”
That year’s Olympic boxing trials were scheduled for the following Monday at the Forum and would feature both Black and white fighters.
“Three weeks before the York Tavern refused service to Christie, [world-famous Black boxer Joe] Louis had fought at Yankee Stadium against Max Schmeling, a German athlete favoured by the Nazi Party,” the encyclopedia wrote. “Schmeling’s shocking knockout victory over the previously undefeated Louis set off small riots across some American cities, as groups of Whites ventured into Black neighbourhoods to taunt dejected Louis supporters.”
Perhaps “the colour bar” had been raised at the York Tavern to suddenly keep Black customers out and the threat of conflict low.
But Christie, shocked and affronted by the sudden refusal of service, called the police — to no avail.
“The police told him there was nothing they could do,” said Williams. “That’s why he decided to take it to court.”
Christie’s story also galvanized Montreal’s Black community, which rallied to help support him financially as his case made its way through the court system.
“They raised money and the case became a ‘cause-célèbre’ in the community and lasted for years. They hired Lovell Carroll, who was a lawyer in Montreal,” Williams said.
The outcome? It wasn’t what he hoped — after winning his first case, he subsequently lost his appeals, including at the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled that the York Tavern, a private business, had the right to serve whomever it pleased.
They also judged that the York wasn’t to blame because it didn’t make a scene.
Its employees refused service to Christie “quietly, politely and without causing any scene or commotion whatsoever.”
One justice, Henry Davis, dissented, writing that the world was changing and that businesses had a duty not to discriminate.
But that kind of sentiment wasn’t enshrined in law in Quebec for another 36 years — until 1975.
In the meantime, Christie had long since left town.
He was thought to have ended up in Vermont, but in fact, he moved to upstate New York, CBC News reported two years ago after hearing from his surviving relatives, most of whom didn’t know he’d had any kind of case in court over racial discrimination.
Williams says the fact that stories like his are largely forgotten, not taught in schools or known as Canadian lore, is a shame.
They help obscure the fact that Black Quebecers and Canadians have faced a pattern of discrimination over many decades, not just in scattered moments, she said.
“There are many stories like Fred Christie which we’re not aware of,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be an awareness of the importance of sharing these stories.”
Williams points out these stories show this kind of incident “didn’t just happen two years ago or in the pandemic or in the 60s,” but that they’re “longstanding issues.”