In the Fascist states of the I930s, every bully had a chance to get some official authority and the opportunity to use it purely for the good of society, of course. Some 60 years later, a new type of Fascist has emerged. They might not wear uniforms or have the powers of arrest, but they can harness the resources of the state to crush opponents and impose their will on Society. Again, this is done with the conviction that bullying is for the collective good.
A case study follows, and our thanks go to the Freedom Party, a band of stalwarts from Southern Ontario for championing the victim and bringing the case to wider attention. The parallels between the uniformed thug of the 1930s and the “compassionate” one of the 1990s should leave no illusions about how our good intentions can be put to bad use.
Elijah Elieff and his wife Sultana are immigrants from Macedonia. They are not sophisticated people, but like most new Canadians they put in long hours over many years. Eventually they managed to acquire two small apartment buildings and a submarine sandwich shop in London Ontario, and ended up working even harder with both their old jobs and the new ones.
Sometime in the early 1990s, Elieff showed a prospective new tenant a comer apartment that he had just finished repainting and cleaning. The tenant claimed she could not see out of one eye and was on Mother’s allowance but-Elieff accepted the offer to rent. The new tenant also paid her first and last month’s rent on a one-year lease.
Within a few months, however, the rent was quite overdue and Elieff called on this tenant. The apartment was in a state of chaos, with material damage and filth everywhere. The woman stated that she was not going to pay the rent because the apartment was in such a mess. Elief asked her to vacate the premises.
The case ended up in court, but Elieff s lawyer was alarmed by a,witness who appeared for the tenant. Susan Eagle was (and remains) a well-known “social activist” and United Church Minister in London Ontario. In large part because of Eagle’s arguments, the Judge ordered Elieffto clean up and repair the apartment, and not to collect any rent until the job was completed. Elieff employed a professional company to undertake this task. This time, however, he took photographs of the completed job and hung on to the receipts.
Within a few months, the rent was again in arrears, and the apartment was in an even worse state. On returning to Court, the judge reversed his previous order, evicted the tenant and apologized to Mr. Elieff. He also admonished Ms. Eagle for her testimony and support of such a wayward tenant.
Elieff did not know that Eagle had her eye on his two apartment buildings and two adjacent buildings owned by a numbered Toronto company. The four were originally built as a larger unit known as Cheyenne Court. Eagle, in testimony at a subsequent event, admitted that she was trying to acquire the buildings on behalf of four United Churches in London, to turn them into a taxpayer-subsidized co-op. She had also been lobbying the Ontario government for funding to acquire the buildings. (Note: “coordinating” and “facilitating” co-op projects can be very lucrative activities.)
Eagle’s ambitions were warmly received in the London Free Press. Coincidentally, her husband Joe Matyas, was a long-time editorial writer and reporter with the paper. Eagle, with the moral authority granted by her position as minister in the Church and – with a seeming inside edge with the Free Press – was in a dominant position for the next set of miseries for Elieff. A series of local media stories, which often cited Eagle, essentially painted Elieff as a prejudiced, stubborn old bigot of a landlord.
This depiction is at odds with the opinions of others (tenants and building custodians) who knew Elieff as a fair and decent man who was struggling to keep some older buildings in good repair. Approximately half of the tenants in the buildings were from Southeast Asia, and many were recent arrivals from rural backgrounds. Consequently, Elieff was often in an uphill battle to keep the buildings clean and intact. There is also reason to believe that not all of the mess and damage done to the apartments was done by tenants. Moreover, Elieff was now under the predatory scrutiny of the Free Press and Susan Eagle, and a steady flow of City-issued repair and maintenance orders followed.
Eventually, the City levied a fine on Elieff for $5,000. When interviewed on this issue by a Free Press reporter, the exasperated landlord was quoted as saying “They’re like little pigs, they think they’re still living in the jungle.” This was the fatal mistake – if indeed Elieff actually said it. Eagle had a splendid opportunity. The Asian tenants of the buildings were canvassed until a Cambodian woman, Chippeng Hom, was persuaded to lay a complaint against Elieff with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Eagle and the Free Press Reporter who interviewed Elieff, Greg Van Moorsel, buttressed Hom’s complaint.
Elieff denied making the statement. Strangely enough, Van Moorsel and the Free Press were unable to produce the notes and tapes of Elieff’s comment – not that this prevented the local media from repeating them. Eagle also appeared to have helped orchestrate demonstrations outside the Elieff’s submarine shop. The theme of the demonstrations was “don’t do business with racists.” The business suffered, and shortly afterwards went into the spiral of failure.
Eagle also held meetings with Elieff’s tenants. When he went to collect overdue rents, he was told by several of them that they had been advised not to pay, or that they had paid their rents to Susan Eagle. In the continuing atmosphere of horrible publicity for Elieff, more damage kept occurring to his apartment buildings. Moreover, young children were observed trailing the superintendent and dumping trash that had just been picked up. All of these facts emerged in the Human Rights Tribunal hearings. However, between the damage to their submarine shop and the missing rents, the Elieff’s were finished.
In front of the Human Rights Commission Tribunal, Mr. Elieff finally encountered his first real ally. He could no longer afford a lawyer, but Bob Metz, the president of a small political party (the Freedom Party) volunteered to act as his representative. Metz, no lawyer himself, is one of the most fundamentally decent people in Ontario political life. The Freedom Party exists as a forum to advance the responsible exercise of individual and economic freedom during political elections in Ontario. Although usually dismissed as a “fringe” party, they deserve much better. The party’s principles are as sound as the character of its leader.
Human Rights Tribunals do operate in some strange ways. Remember that the Ontario Human Rights Commission was the body that seriously entertained a recommendation to remove the presumption of innocence! The judge, Mr. Ajit Jain, ruled that there was no evidence to support a racism complaint. Elieff, however, could not be allowed to escape unpunished.
He was required to pay $2,500 for “damages due to reprisal” to Ms. Hom because he was accused of attempting to evict her for non-payment of rent during the course of the Tribunal hearings. The concept of “reprisal” came late in the proceedings without being argued or spoken to. Note also that penalties assessed by these tribunals are always paid to the complainant – making the initiation of any Human Rights Tribunal case a potentially lucrative undertaking.
With Elieff’s escape from the racism charge. Eagle and Hom appealed the decision to a divisional court. Three judges (Southey, Saunders and Jenkins) declared that the London Free Press had created a “poisoned atmosphere” against Cambodians. Then they reversed the tribunal decision and ordered that Elieff pay $6,000 to the complainant of record. The decision was a very bizarre one.
To start with, the court argued that the object of the Human Rights Code was not to penalize “but to promote relief and understanding”. The reference to Cambodians was strange too, for the Human Rights Tribunal had never used the term (nor had Elieff). Instead, the Tribunal had referred to Asians in general.
Judge Southey’s statement is especially interesting. Because the media coverage “as reported by Van Moorsel in the Free Press created a poisoned atmosphere” he supported raising the penalty against Elieff to $6,000. The Free Press had spearheaded Eagle’s harassment of Elieff, and could not provide the evidence that Elieff had made the original remark in the first place.
Justice is indeed blind … and ignorant to boot.
Elieff is now driving highway transports and is more than $100,000 in debt. His properties were seized and sold under power of sale, and both his business and reputation are ruined. There are two postscripts to the story.
The first comes from a statement offered to the Free Press by Mr. Peter Sergautis, the new owner of Elieff’s apartments. (These had been snapped up before Eagle had a chance to react). The Free Press has so far refused to print the statement.
“I met Mr. Elieff briefly after taking over the buildings. He had the eyes of a broken man, quietly accusing me and everybody of taking advantage.
“Immediately after my purchase, I was approached by Rev. Susan Eagle who advised me that the buildings were uneconomical, unrepairable and designated for public housing, and that I was standing in her way.
“I offered her several opportunities to purchase the buildings at cost, but she was unable to act on that offer. After closing, she asked me not to renovate the buildings and I had to explain to her that the project was like a taxi meter financially (time bomb would have been ,more accurate) and I was obliged to proceed with emergency repairs and construction.
“Ms. Eagle acted as if she wanted to put me out of business, and in anger told me to my face ‘Mr. Sergautis, I am going to see to it that you obey the letter of the law.’ when it became clear that the buildings would no longer be available for public housing. …
“Looking back at my experiences with Ms. Eagle, I can clearly understand how a small businessman, ensnared by the hand of a voracious activist, couldn’t keep up. The resulting publicity caused the heavy hand of bureaucracy to descend like a cement coffin lid upon Elieff and his family and crushed them. Shame on us.
“We watched this financial execution with morbid curiosity, for after all, he was the ‘bad guy’. Even worse, a bad landlord and deserved all he got. But did he? What heinous crimes did he commit? Or was his crime just that he couldn’t keep up with the attack on every legal front? Because of the negative publicity, Elieff couldn’t borrow a penny for repairs and had no money to defend the numerous actions and applications [all of which were backed by public funding, ed.] against him. What person without considerable staff and resources could keep up with what hit him?”
So far, Sergautis has been able to fend off Eagle. In the meantime, backed by the slender resources of the Freedom Party and a few well-wishers, Elieff has sued Eagle and the United Church. A suit against the Free Press was deemed too difficult to undertake.
Those who, wish to support this poor man in his battle for justice can make a cheque out to the Cheyenne Court Challenge Fund. The mailing address is care of:
The Freedom Party of Ontario
PO Box 2214, Station A
On November 6th the Voice of Canadians Committees and the Freedom Party held fundraising events for Elieff, but more work needs to be done.