Canadian laws · Canadian Stories · Chinese Culture

We’ll tell you where you can live – BC’s Land Titles Act

Whenever I’m visiting Vancouver, the topic of real estate comes up. Vancouverites can’t help talking about it. You might talk about it too if the phrase million dollar teardown was a part of your life.

I shared my trivia about how the so-called British Properties in West Vancouver were styled that way for a reason: only British people could live there. It was developed by the Guinness family, and it seems that while the Guinnesses were happy to make their fortunes selling beer to anyone, they were a lot less egalitarian when it came to their neighbours.

www.past-presence.com
Aerial view of West Vancouver, 1974. By Miranda.Kopetzky (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
And it wasn’t just the British Properties. According to Ron Usher, general counsel for the Society of Notaries Public in BC, there could be houses all over Vancouver with discriminatory restrictive covenants hiding in their document clauses.

What’s a restrictive covenant, you ask?

1850 – Who’s not allowed in?

Since the mid-19th century, property law has permitted sellers to force buyers to make enduring promises about the races of people not allowed to move into the neighbourhood. According to the Consultation Paper on Restrictive Covenants, a covenant is a legally binding promise by one person (covenantor) to another (covenantee).

No Asiatics, no Indians, no Negros…

Here’s a sample restrictive covenant where the buyer agrees:

…that the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.

…anyone else?

I heard a 1980s story from a brilliant and well-respected lawyer who, while considering a house in West Vancouver, requested that the antisemitic restrictive covenants be removed from his real estate documents. The realtor assured him the covenants no longer applied. He assured the realtor he was fully capable of understanding legal niceties… and still wanted the covenants removed. That is, unless the realtor wished to walk away from the deal?

They were removed.

1978 – BC revises the Land Titles Act

Thirty years after the Chinese got the vote, they also got the right to buy a house where they wanted to live. It took a generation, but Section 222(1) of the Land Titles Act now states:

A covenant that directly or indirectly, restricts the sale, ownership, occupation or use of land on account of the sex, race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin of a person, however created, whether before or after the coming into force of this section, is void and of no effect.

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This house did not have a restrictive covenant. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

2017 – How many houses are affected?

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Looking north on Cambie Street, 2016. Copyright 2018. Past Presence. All rights reserved.

Ron Usher said, “There could be thousands. They were common in Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver and Victoria, and there’s no way of knowing the exact numbers.”

Restrictive covenants are not cheap to remove, either. According to Peter Roberts of Lawson Lundell LLP, the cost can range from $2,000 to $10,000.

It’s a nightmare for realtors and owners wanting to sell. As noted from my story about the lawyer above, just because it’s no longer applicable doesn’t make it right.

Why did you write this piece?

I was reflecting on the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown, and wondering what reasons there might have been for  Chinese immigrants to live in such close proximity. There are positive social reasons for wanting to live near people like you, such as language, culture,  safety, and community. But it seems there have also been barriers to moving away from Chinatown.

Sources

Consultation paper on restrictive covenants. June, 2011. British Columbia Law Institute Real Property Reform (Phase 2) Project Committee. Available at link.

6 thoughts on “We’ll tell you where you can live – BC’s Land Titles Act

  1. A very informative post. Thank you for it.

    This gave me pause: “There are positive social reasons for wanting to live near people like you, such as language, culture, safety, and community.” Isn’t that exactly why people insist on covenants? So they can live near people like themselves?

    I thought of this too when writing my most recent post, and deliberately left more questions asked than answered because I wanted to hear my followers’ thoughts on the topic.

    1. Hi Cynthia – it’s very nice to meet you online. I had to read your post before responding. Thank you for the kind comments. I never would have known about this topic but for working a decade in very large law firms and getting to know dozens of whipsmart lawyers who are utterly consumed by the law, so much so that it’s both a career and a topic of conversation. It was an eye-opening experience to do the research on the BC Land Titles Act and read the language for myself.

      To your comment… I think there is a world of difference between desiring to live near people you are comfortable with and barring people you’re not comfortable with from buying the house next door. Don’t you agree?

      Linda

      1. Yes. I do. But I also think the need many humans feel to surround themselves with others like themselves is at the root of both situations. Also, some formerly oppressed groups don’t realize when they have become the oppressor and will justify their exclusionary behaviours to the nines. You sound like you’ve had a very interesting career indeed. As a journalist reporting on court cases, I worked closely with lawyers, but nowhere near the collegial relationship you would have had.

      2. I have definitely had an interesting career. I spent nearly 13 years in various positions at a daily newspaper – all in the backend – and I remember it with some fondness.

        Your career path sounds even more intriguing, with storytelling the central thread.

        In my mind we are talking about two issues: the tendency of people to prefer people like themselves (at least in matters of where to live and socialize), and the political repercussions when those same people, having once established themselves, want to close the door to people coming after them. I’ll focus on the former here.

        I think it takes a generation or more to develop the skills to navigate the new country: learn the new language, develop the social acumen necessary to navigate the new ways of doing things, learn the skills that are rewarded in the new country, and much more. Provided there are no legal and regulatory barriers in place, it’s the children of the first generation who move out and away. In BC, though, I found that one of the reasons why my ancestors tended to cluster around Chinatown was they were prevented from buying elsewhere for roughly 4 generations. This is not unique to BC nor to the Chinese. My friends in the legal world said there were similiar covenants for “Jews and other undesirables” in Ontario. (Irving Himel, whose story I briefly mention in my post “The right to be a Canadian,” fought such covenants and was ultimately successful.)

        There are so many threads to this conversation I could really go on forever but I’ll stop here!

        Linda

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