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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MARK MCNEIL

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.

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