Ninth Floor documentary looks back at Montreal's 'Computer Riot'

CBC's Daybreak spoke with one of the first black students to protest against racist treatment at Sir George Williams University in 1969, which led to riots and a sit-in and has now inspired a National Film Board documentary.

'Our dignity, our humanity… there was no overwhelming concern to see us as people with rights'

Students and other Montrealers protested outside the university during a two-week-long occupation of the Hall Building computer centre. (Radio-Canada Archives)

What came to be known as the Computer Riot — a violent protest and sit-in against racism at a Montreal university — is the subject of a new National Film Board documentary that premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

The film is called Ninth Floor.

It uses rarely-before-seen archive footage to show the racist treatment of black students at Sir George Williams University, now Concordia's downtown campus, in the winter of 1969.

What followed were student demonstrations, occupation of the computer room at the university and a fire that took place when riot police were called in. 

Biology teacher, Perry Anderson, was accused of unfairly grading black students at Sir George Williams University. (Ninth Floor/NFB)
CBC Montreal's Daybreak host Mike Finnerty spoke with Rodney John, one of the original six black biology students who stepped forward to complain about the treatment they received from professor Perry Anderson. 

Rodney John is one of the central narrators in the Ninth Floor movie.

He now lives in Toronto and is 73 years old. 

Mike Finnerty: What was it like for you to see the finished version of that film?

Rodney John: It was quite moving, very, very moving. There were so many elements that I had forgotten and to see them all packaged in the film was quite profound for me.

MF: Did it in any way change your recollection and how you think about it now?

RJ: No, it simply cemented my memory of what went on. What the film did was bring to consciousness to awareness, that the fire was the culmination, the expression of all of the frustration, the anguish, the agony.

From a distance you look at it and say they are very brave, but when you are in the situation, it's the only proper thing to do.- Rodney John

MF: Take us back to the beginning of the events that we see in the film, and what must have been a brave thing to do at the time, to sign that protest piece of paper that said, "We are being treated with racism." Why did you sign it?

RJ: Because it was the right thing to do. From a distance you look at it and say they are very brave, but when you are in the situation, it's the only proper thing to do. The only way it could be codified was to call it racism.

MF: For people who don't know exactly what happened, what kind of experience did you have with that professor treating black students different from white ones?

RJ: During that academic year, every single West Indian student, and there were about 14 of us in the class, had issues with Anderson. He called us by our honorifics — Mr. This and Ms. That — whereas he called the white students by their first names. And his response to that was, well, he was simply being polite to the black students, and as for the white students, well he knew them.

I found out ... that Perry Anderson is going to end up with a great-grandchild who is black. That sort of put a whole different context on things.- Rodney John

[Biology student] Terence had a white lab partner. Terence wrote his lab, handed it in, it was returned marked, and he got 7/10 for it. His white partner borrowed his lab after it was marked, copied it word for word, including grammatical errors, and got 9/10 for the same particular lab. Each of us had an experience with Anderson, at least one. 

MF: What do you think of what happened to your friends and colleagues and how it was handled?

RJ: Oh, it was mishandled, grossly mishandled. There is no argument about that.

MF: Purposefully, possibly?

RJ: Yes, purposefully. Our dignity, our humanity, our rights … there was no overwhelming concern to see us as people with rights and their responsibility to uphold that.

In 1969, violent protests and a 14-day sit-in over racism at Sir George Williams University exploded. Police and riot squad officers stormed the computer room, arresting 97 people. (Ninth Floor/NFB)
MF: You met Perry Anderson's son at a screening of the film, what was that like?

RJ: Duff is a lovely man. Duff is not his father. And ultimately, you cannot hold people responsible for who their father is. I found out through him that Perry Anderson is going to end up with a great-grandchild who is black. That sort of put a whole different context on things.

MF: It seemed that he admitted that there was a wider societal racism he fell into, possibly without being conscious of it.

RJ: I would accept that as a rationale for his behaviour. When I came to Montreal in the 1960s, the place was quite racist. To expect the university to be isolated from that racism would be quite naive. The thing is when he was made aware of it, rather than accept responsibility and say, 'I will change,' he and the people who supported him doubled down on it. To this day, I feel a sense of anguish over what we had to go through, the way in which our lives were sidetracked.

MF: Many people went to jail and one of the protestors never recovered. When you look back on it, do you look back with a sense of pride?

RJ: No. You take pride in doing something that is above and beyond what you should have done. This is something that had to be done. I did it because it was necessary. You know, in the larger scheme of things, we were just a fraction of the larger struggle for the humanity of minorities, which is still going on. And any number of people have paid a much higher price. People have paid a price with their lives. 


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