A Black-owned family business in Canada was victorious in court against a landlord who tried to evict them. A judge deemed the landlord’s actions biased in his ruling on the case.
Lassie and Clebirth Charles are the owners of Elias Caribbean Restaurant Bar and Grill in North York, Ontario. The couple sued Keele Sheppard Plaza Inc. and Castlehill Properties Inc. for trying to stop them from renewing their lease despite being model tenants.
The case was heard Sept. 4 and decided Sept. 11. According to court documents, the Charles family — who began leasing the space in 2012 — have always paid their rent, despite increases and the global coronavirus pandemic.
Keele and Castlehill acquired the plaza property in April 2016 and sent notice to all tenants that they should communicate about all matters to the property management office.
The Charles family missed the date of Jan. 31, 2017, to submit a written notice of their intent to renew their lease, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. According to court documents, they tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to reach the landlords through various means, but their calls were “studiously avoided.”
The Charles couple sued, citing racial discrimination against them and their clientele, which is predominately Black. They also said the landlord failed to renew leases of other businesses operated by people of color.
“This was racism,” Lassie told The Star 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.’”
Ontario Superior Court Justice Ed Morgan agreed with her. In his judgment, he criticized Keele and Castlehill’s attempts to paint the Charles family and their customers as people with questionable character who were not “family-friendly” or “like-minded.” Morgan said the landlord’s objections to being accused of racial discrimination did not exonerate them of the behavior, whether they were conscious of it or not.
“Motivation, however, is not the point here. 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,” Morgan wrote. “On this point, the Court of Appeal has observed that although racial stereotyping may not be conscious, it is nevertheless real: ‘For some people, anti-black biases rest on unstated and unchallenged assumptions learned over a lifetime. Those assumptions shape the daily behaviour of individuals, often without any conscious reference to them.’”
Morgan also called attention to the “veiled tone of racism” and “racially derogatory themes” in the landlord’s affidavits.
“It is the Tenant’s view that the Landlord’s real point is not that families do not eat at restaurants or consume wine and beer with their meals, but rather that the “wrong” kind of families eat at this particular establishment. Tenant’s counsel submits that there is a barely veiled tone of racism in these observations made by and on behalf of the Landlord about a Black community restaurant,” Morgan wrote. “Indeed, the affidavits submitted by the Landlord and its agents, which describe loitering, drinking, and gambling, articulate what might be considered almost a caricature of racially derogatory themes.”
The ruling from Morgan also said the landlord’s shifting of its defense to include a claim that it would make more money from a ‘different type of tenant’ was unfounded — particularly considering the Charles family offered to pay $7,500 a month to renew their lease. He noted the amount was “substantially more than the current 125 percent base rent and additional rent.”
Originally from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Charles family has been in Canada for over three decades. At Elias, they employ their son Earlan Charles, 31, and others.
Earlan said he was curious if the outcome would have been different had the current activism around Black Lives Matter not been as prevalent.
“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,” Earlan said.
His father, however, never doubted. “I told Lassie that I could win this case,” Clebirth said.