STANDING UP TO A RACIST EVICTION
A lot – but not enough – has changed since the family of a Hamilton firefighter were asked to leave their apartment because of the colour of their skin. They waged war against a racist housing practice and won, paving the way for human rights legislation
WHEN RON SUMMERS WAS A BOY GROWING UP in St. Catharines, his dad told him it was important to stand up to racial discrimination.
But it was only later in life that the 54-year-old Hamilton firefighter came to fully understand the full breadth of what his father was saying — about taking on blatant forms of discrimination as well as more subtle forms that continue today.
The year was 1959, three years before Ron was born, and his parents found themselves facing an eviction notice because of the colour of their skin. The case drew widespread attention to a gaping hole in legal protection for visible minorities and became a seminal moment in the fight against discrimination.
“He wasn’t a highly educated man but he knew the difference between right and wrong. He wasn’t going to put up with it and he was going to fight to make sure his children didn’t have go through the same thing.” RON SUMMERS SPEAKING OF HIS FATHER’S CHALLENGE TO RACISM
BACK BEFORE the Ontario Human Rights Code and Canadian Human Rights Act, piecemeal provincial laws attempted to offer protection against discrimination based on race, religion, colour or nationality in public signs, employment, the provision of services and the sale of property.
However, there was no legal recourse when it came to apartment rentals.
If you were a black tenant, there was nothing to stop a racist landlord from evicting you.
THAT’S EXACTLY what happened to Charles and Ada Summers and their two young children who were told to leave their apartment on Ontario Street because “they were Negroes.”
Ada says the apartment was originally rented to the family because the owner didn’t realize they were black. The paperwork was completed by Charles alone and he had a light complexion.
“It was only after the landlady saw me and my children that she realized we were black. She figured we were lowering the property values,” says Ada, now 77.
By then, some neighbours had objected and racist customers of a nearby restaurant threatened to take their business elsewhere if the family did not move, according to a 2007 booklet written by Brock University professors Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage, titled “Confrontation, Struggle and Transformation: Organized Labour in the St. Catharines Area.”
BUT THE FAMILY refused to leave. Charles got the landlady to provide written notice, which he then took to the St. Catharines Standard.
He told the newspaper: “I felt that if I didn’t take a stand now my children would have to face the same discrimination during their lives. I want this kind of thing to stop now.” Charles dug in. “He wasn’t a highly educated man but he knew the difference between right and wrong. He wasn’t going to put up with it and he was going to fight to make sure his children didn’t have go through the same thing,” says Ron of his dad, who died in 1986.
Ada says she remembers it was a huge matter of principle for her husband. “All he wanted was for the landlady to revoke her request for us to vacate. The moment we got that in writing, he gave our notice to vacate. That was my husband for you.”
The St. Catharines and District Labour Council rallied to the family’s cause. So did numerous residents in St. Catharines. The case gained provincial attention.
In Toronto, the Toronto and Dis- trict Labour Committee for Human Rights and human rights lawyer A. Alan Borovoy were pressuring the provincial government to include apartment renting as part of anti-discrimination legislation. They pointed to the St. Catharines case as the kind of thing that needed to be prevented in the future.
There were cases of black tenants being evicted in Toronto, but the victims were afraid to go public.
Back in St. Catharines, municipal council tried to draft its own bylaw but the effort failed — by one vote — largely because opponents successfully argued the area legislation was more properly a provincial matter.
A petition was put together to press the province. And then finally in 1961 the legislature enacted changes to the Fair Accommodation Practices Act that outlawed the refusal of services to include apartment rentals.
Then in the 1970s more pervasive human rights legislation was enacted on a provincial and federal level.
BROCK UNIVERSITY history professor Patrias says, “This was a test case for racial discrimination with rental units. I’d say it was important because Canadians were not very aware about how much discrimination there was.
“I think this was a step in making Canada a more inclusive society and recognizing whatever your colour or religion or gender, you had the same rights as everyone else. I think in that sense it is pretty important.
“Mr. Summers was not a member of any elite, but he had a strong sense of his rights and the kind of world he wanted for his children.”
Ron says, “They stood up at a time when people of colour were too afraid to stand up. It showed a lot of courage on their part and the end result was there was legislative change to help all minorities with rental housing.”
Ron received a John C. Holland Award for community work in 2013 — in part for him writing a paper called “Systemic Bias in the Hiring Practices of the Fire Department.”
The report was presented to the fire department and City Hall back in the 1990s. “We had some meetings and discussions about it, but it never went further than that.”
He says there were three black firefighters at the time. And no additional ones have been hired since.
He feels much has improved when it comes to visible minorities since 1959, but he feels hiring practices still need to be changed to help workplaces better reflect the diversity of the general population.
Ron Summers and mom Ada in her St. Catharines home. In 1959, Ada and her family got an eviction notice because of their skin colour.
Left: Charles Summers was Ron’s father. The two parents, Charles and his wife Ada, challenged a race-based eviction from their apartment in St. Catharines. The year was 1959. The community rallied in support of the family.