The Fred Christie Case (Christie v York, 1939) is a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that allowed private businesses to discriminate on the basis of freedom of commerce. In July 1936, Fred Christie and two friends went to the York Tavern attached to the Montreal Forum to have a beer. The staff refused to serve them because Christie was Black. Christie sued, eventually bringing his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the York Tavern was within its rights to refuse to serve people on the basis of race. The case reveals an era of legalized racism, while its facts hide the subtle ways that racism operated in early 20th-century Canada.
Born in Jamaica in 1902, Fred Christie immigrated to Canada and eventually settled near Montreal in 1919. He arrived in Quebec seeking opportunity, like many from the Caribbean in the first decades of the 20th century (see Caribbean Canadians). Christie settled in Verdun, a Montreal suburb and home to a growing and vibrant Black community. In Montreal, he found a good job working as a chauffeur, many friendships, and a passion for hockey. Christie was a season ticket holder at the Montreal Forum in the 1930s, and may have cheered for either of Montreal’s two NHL teams: the Montreal Canadiens (with its mostly French Canadian supporters) or the Montreal Maroons (backed by local anglophones).
Christie would have encountered a city marked by racism, too. The “colour line” closed most professional jobs to Black applicants. Hotels and restaurants did not always serve Black customers. Large numbers of clubs, organizations and associations would not accept Black members. One of the constant challenges for Black residents in any large Canadian city was navigating the unclear and changeable racial rules imposed by Whites.
Saturday Night at the Forum
On Saturday, 11 July 1936, Christie and two friends — one Black, the other French Canadian — headed to the Forum. Although the NHL season was long over, Christie returned to visit the Forum’s York Tavern (located in the arena’s ground floor), where he had enjoyed a drink between periods throughout the hockey season. This visit to the York Tavern would be different. Christie placed 50 cents on the table and ordered three glasses of beer. However, both the waiter and bartender refused to serve Christie because he was Black. Christie was unaware that management had recently imposed this policy of racial segregation. Offended, he summoned the police to witness the York’s refusal to serve him. The officers arrived but failed to do anything about it.
Why did the York impose this policy? It may have been due to concerns about upcoming boxing matches and the threat of racial tensions and violence. Boxing was a highly racialized sport. The Forum was set to host the Canadian Olympic boxing trials on the following Monday. The trials would finalize the roster of boxers heading to the Olympic Summer Games in Berlin. Among those vying for a spot on the team was welterweight Raymond Clifford McIntyre. Originally from New Brunswick, McIntyre now made Montreal home. He was also Black.
In the 1930s, fans and media often approached boxing as a fight for racial supremacy. This tendency became even more pronounced after the success of Joe Louis, a Black heavyweight. Three weeks before the York Tavern refused service to Christie, Louis had fought at Yankee Stadium against Max Schmeling, a German athlete favoured by the Nazi Party. 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. “Harlem Hoodlums Attack White Men” was the headline running in the Montreal Gazette the following day, 20 June 1936.
The York Tavern had been willing to serve Christie a beer during the hockey season in a crowd dominated by Whites. But the rules changed on the cusp of a boxing match that might draw larger numbers of Black spectators to the Forum. With the Louis-Schmeling fight and racial violence in the background, the colour bar was raised at the York, where Christie was no longer welcome.
Word of the York Tavern’s refusal spread through Montreal’s Black community and a legal fund was established to assist Christie to bring his case to court. The legal fund was chaired by Kenneth Melville, the first Black medical student at McGill University. With the financial backing and support of his community, Christie sued York Tavern for $200 in damages for the humiliation he suffered.
Christie v York: Racism at the Supreme Court of Canada
In the 1930s, Canada’s Constitution did not contain explicit protections for equality rights (see Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Nor did Canada or Quebec have specific laws preventing discrimination. Christie and his lawyer, Lovell Carroll, argued instead that the York Tavern had broken its contract with Christie by refusing to serve him after he ordered his drink, and that the York had violated its duty under its liquor licence to serve all customers without discrimination. The trial judge agreed and awarded Christie $25 in damages.
On appeal, a majority of judges sided with the York Tavern, holding that “a merchant or trader is free to carry on his business in the manner that he conceives to be best for that business.” In dissent, Justice Galipeault quoted from an earlier case that “[o]ur constitution (Quebec) is and always has been essentially democratic and it does not admit of distinction of races and classes. All men are equal before the law and each has equal rights as a member of the community.” Hopeful that Justice Galipeault’s dissent might carry weight, Christie appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On 10 May 1939, Chief Justice Lyman Poore Duff and four other members of the Supreme Court heard the arguments in Fred Christie’s case in Ottawa. That December, the Court released its judgment. Christie lost. Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Thibaudeau Rinfret pointed out that “in refusing to sell beer to [Christie], the [York’s] employees did so quietly, politely and without causing any scene or commotion whatsoever.” If there was blame for the unfortunate events, Justice Rinfret claimed, it lay squarely on Christie’s shoulders, since he “persisted in demanding beer after he had been so refused and went to the length of calling the police, which was entirely unwarranted by the circumstances.” As to the law, the Court held that tavern owners had no legal duties to serve everyone. “Freedom of commerce” prevailed, the Court held, and that meant a tavern could refuse to serve whomever they pleased.
Justice Henry Davis dissented. Alone among his colleagues, Justice Davis’s reasons described Fred Christie’s life in Montreal, his status as a British subject and his previous uneventful trips to the York Tavern. However, Justice Davis also got the facts wrong, writing that Christie had been heading to a hockey game the night he was refused service. As a result, the decision hid from view the more racially charged atmosphere behind the real set of facts. In Montreal, as elsewhere in Canada, racist rules about who belonged where and when often changed depending on the circumstances. For the York Tavern, the racist rules of service changed when the hockey season of winter became the boxing trials of summer. For his part, Justice Davis ruled that because the government regulated the sale of alcohol, taverns must sell to all without discrimination. The world was changing, Justice Davis wrote, and that meant that freedom of contract had been replaced by a public law duty not to discriminate.
The Legacy of Christie v. York
Disappointed with the loss of his case, Fred Christie left Montreal and moved to Vermont. In the decades that followed, while legal scholars criticized the decision in Christie v. York, human rights statutes began to change the law in Canada. In the decades following the Second World War, provincial legislatures and the Canadian Parliament began to outlaw discrimination in the provision of private goods and services. In 1975, Quebec enacted its Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, finally preventing taverns from discriminating on the basis of race. At that moment, the decision in Christie v. York passed from law into legal history, a permanent reminder of the power of law to authorize the racism that often lurks below the surface of society.