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Canada's First Racial Discrimination Trial

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It is oft-implied that the United States had segregation while Canada was above this racial retardment. Hollywood movies dramatize the plight of African-American soldiers who, after defeating the Nazis in WWII, returned home to burned crosses, institutionalised bigotry, and all the vestiges of southern stereotypes. But, here in Canada, we were so much better than that.

Or were we?

It turns out the city of Dresden, Ontario was the setting of Canada's first ever racial discrimination trial. Dresden had served as a beacon of hope and freedom as thousands of escaped African-American slaves sought refuge there through the Underground Railroad during the 19th century. A hundred years on, racial divisions persisted.

In July 1943, Dresden native Hugh Burnett wrote to federal Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent, informing him that even in uniform, a black man could not be served in any Dresden restaurant. He was shocked to receive a reply from the Deputy Minister stating that racial discrimination was not illegal in Canada.

Burnett petitioned and lobbied throughout the 1940s to end "whites-only" stores, restaurants and barbershops in his hometown. His efforts were unsuccessful. Ontario Premier Robert Frost ignored his appeals for legislative support. Event amidst blatant injustice, there was a prevailing attitude among the masses that racism was an American condition and not really a problem in Canada. Some things never change.

In 1947, for example, the Conservative Minister of Labour, Charles Daley, told Rabbi Feinberg that, "these days, racial discrimination is to a great extent imaginary." Some things never change.

It wasn't until Spring 1954 that Premier Frost introduced the Fair Accommodation Practices Act which made it "a statutory offence to discriminate in public places on grounds of race, creed, color, nationality, ancestry or place of origin". After the Act became law in April 1954, visible minorities began seeking service in Dresden establishments. The proprietors, however, continued to exclude them. Taking a page out of the Southern segregationists' book, locals threatened the lives of those who they labeled "troublemakers."

One night, there was even an attempt to burn down the Burnett home. Parallels to the American South abound.

"You don't have to be a Communist to demand your rights," - Hugh Burnett.

Interestingly, there were conservative attempts to discredit Burnett, claiming that he was a "Communist" - a tactic which is still widely used today to disrepute, then dismiss those who challenge the injustice, unfairness and other dregs of the status quo. In those days, the label was "communist." Today, it is "terrorist" or "anarchist." Even the "anti-Semitic" charge has been hoisted at people who ask to be treated fairly. Some things never change.

The ground-breaking 30-minute National Film Board documentary produced in the fall of 1954 entitled "The Dresden Story" lays bare the underbelly of institutionalized discrimination in a manner that today's generation might find quite shocking. The eye-widening video, available free online, plays more like a period film about Alabama than that of our grandparents' Canada.

Despite the new law, several locals attempted to get service at local restaurants without success. Premier Frost and Charles Daley, the Ontario Minister of Labour, repeatedly refused to press charges. The latter went as far as obstructing justice to avoid challenging staunch bigots. Again, like the U.S. South, the civil rights laws were rendered useless when they were not enforced.

Two courageous youth, a Chinese-Canadian student Ruth Lor and 21-year old Bromley Armstrong, joined Burnett in a gesture reminiscent of Rosa Parks' stoicism in October 1954. When the Ontario government succumbed to media pressure, a case went to court against what was called "the color bar" in 1955. Incredibly, the judge sided with the racist restaurant owners.

It took additional attempts for the two restaurant proprietors to receive a definitive conviction in May 1956. For the first time in Canada, racial equality was declared a civil right, and racial discrimination was confirmed as illegal.

On the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Woolworths sit-in which galvanized the civil rights movement in the segregated United States, the four African-American students who risked their lives by daring to sit at a "whites-only" lunch counter in North Carolina where saluted with great fanfare in their home country.

In the context of the South, those who openly challenged the iron clad race-based rules often ended up languishing in prison for decades, being run out of town, or hanging from a tall tree. The courage of the Greensboro Four has been recognised and the very counter at which a movement was started is in the Smithsonian collection (part of the National Museum of American History).

When people stand up against injustice, they deserve to be remembered. While the selective sweeping under the rug of historical happenings has shielded Canada of its checkered past, it has also robbed heroes of their merited acknowledgement and due rewards. Some things never change.

But this flagrant omission doesn't have to follow the trend.

It behooves our history museums, our governments, and our countrymen to rid themselves of selective amnesia and give credit and where credit is due. While Hugh Barnett never lived to see the plaque that was installed in Dresden near the very restaurant which refused to serve him, Ruth Lor and Bromley Armstrong are still with us. There is no CBC TV movie, no public statue, no grand boulevard, no commemorative stamp, no Order of Canada dedicated to any of these genuine Canadian heroes.

The time is nigh.