Black business owners win against racism in Ontario Superior Court decision

Of note:

Lassie Charles was almost ready to give up.

She told her husband that they would have to close down the successful restaurant they had started eight years ago in order to find another location. Their new landlord was deliberately making it difficult for the couple to renew their lease agreement, even though they were ideal tenants.

Ideal in almost every way — except that they, and many of their customers, were Black.

That was the essence of a conclusion that an Ontario Superior Court judge came to in the case between Elias Restaurant and Keele Sheppard Plaza Inc. and Castlehill Properties Inc. in a judgement released earlier this month.

The case centered on the fact that the landlord and manager wanted a new tenant who “would somehow be more suitable to the shopping plaza.” They did everything they could to avoid responding to the Charles family’s efforts to renew their lease, using a technicality to try to evict them from their bustling location at Keele Street and Sheppard Avenue. Such a move would cut them off from a diverse customer base that had remained loyal, even throughout the pandemic. The couple had continued to pay their monthly rent on time, despite a 125 per cent rental increase.

During the trial, various statements by representatives for the landlord were indicative of “racial stereotyping,” wrote Justice Ed Morgan in his September 11 judgement.

“Identifying a family-run restaurant as not family-friendly, and impugning a restaurant-bar for serving ‘liquor’ and having smokers stand outside the premises, all point to a mindset that condemns the minority population for what is considered normal behaviour for the majority population,” he wrote.

“This was racism,” agreed Lassie in an interview. “I was insulted on the phone and was told my place was undesirable and that they were going to renovate it to their liking. My husband deserves the credit for this because he said ‘let’s fight them.’”

The couple, originally from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, have lived in Canada for over 30 years. It was her husband’s exceptional cooking skills (passed down from his mother) that led the couple to invest in a restaurant and bar that employ their 31-year-old son and two other servers. Over the years, they had invested $150,000 in the 1,500-square-foot space.

“I told Lassie that I could win this case,” said Clebirth Charles in an interview, speaking from the restaurant’s kitchen where he and his son prepare popular Afro-Caribbean cultural foods including curry goat, oxtail, and jerk chicken.

Their lawyer Miguna Miguna agreed, and argued they were being forced out because of anti-Black racism.

“Over the years, the courts have not focused as much attention at the outright racism of commercial landlords,” said Miguna in an interview from his office in Toronto, pointing out that the racism involving people of colour looking to rent or purchase property to live in is much more widely acknowledged than the ghettoization of Black-owned commerce. “No one has ever interrogated through litigation the issue of racism and how it impacts negatively on African Canadians in business. I was hopeful that the judge would not turn the other way and he didn’t.”

Citing case law to support his conclusions, Justice Morgan described the landlord’s suggestions that the restaurant owners were “unattractive” tenants as a form of “‘Othering’ of minority people . . . in the guise of a legal method.” The lawyer for the landlord objected to the suggestion of racial bias, but Justice Morgan pointed out that it wasn’t up to the justice system to determine whether someone is aware of their bias, only whether or not their statements and actions point to its existence.

“For the judge to make such accurate and warranted remarks, is a testament to what the Black community endures in all aspects of life,” said Earlan Charles, the couple’s son and the restaurant’s head chef.

“To be honest, although we were the victims, I wonder if we would have gotten the same outcome if the attention and momentum around systemic racism wasn’t on our side,” he wondered.

We’ll never know, but this case demonstrates progress — and a much needed win.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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