Montreal·Point of View

The Sir George Williams affair 50 years later: Was it worth it?

It was some 50 years ago that the crisis at Sir George Williams University unfolded, and Rodney John is convinced the lessons of that event will continue to resonate with the younger generation, and it will not all have been in vain.

Rodney John was one of the original 6 black students who stepped forward about treatment by a professor

Fifty years after what became known as the Sir George Williams University computer riot, Dr. Rodney John, one of the students whose allegations of racism triggered the explosive events, says it's a shame they were never able to receive due process. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

It was some 50 years ago that the crisis at Sir George Williams University unfolded.

One might say that it burst into the nation's consciousness with meteoric intensity.

For the general public, they were persuaded by news reports that blasted out the following messages:

  • "Sir George Counts the Cost"
  • "Approximately $1,000,000 Damage"
  • "Computer Centre now a Soaked Charred Ruin, Computers a Total Loss"

This headline from 1969 in Le Devoir reads, '$1M in damages and 79 arrests.' (McGill University Library)

The students were portrayed as radicals and troublemakers who were bent on destroying the university.

One columnist at The Star actually wrote that the charge of racism against biology professor Perry Anderson was merely a sham or an excuse for violence.

The sit-in started on Jan. 27, 1969 and was brought to an end on Feb. 11, 1969.

I, along with hundreds of other students, barricaded myself in a computer room on the ninth floor.

Some 97 students were arrested, and some were given prison sentences from two weeks to three years. Bail set ranged from $1,500 to $15,000.

Now, 50 years later, I was invited to attend a number of events around the commemoration, including the opening of the play, Blackout.

Members of the creative team behind Blackout stand on the grounds of Concordia University. The play revisits the protest the launched national soul searching about race 50 years ago. (Jaclyn Turner/Tableau D'Hôte Theatre)

It was while watching the play that I experienced a profound sense of sadness.

My overwhelming feeling was the absurdity of the whole episode.

I reflected on the careers that were truncated, the families that were disrupted, the students beaten by the police, those who were imprisoned, and the racism that was unleashed on the black community from many quarters; the police, the media, the citizens, and even members of the various governments.

We were severely punished for seemingly having the temerity to raise concerns over the treatment that we had experienced at the hands of a white professor. We were supposed to accept whatever was dished out to us and not complain.

In reflecting on the "crisis," I thought of how the events, filtered through the lens of a biased, if not racist community, had totally distorted the narrative of what had transpired.

The first point to be registered is that the event did not start on Jan. 29, 1969 and definitely could not be codified by what took place on Feb. 11, 1969. Indeed, I was first informed of Perry Anderson's negative behaviours towards West Indians in the academic year of 1966–1967.

In the year 1967–1968, the matter was followed up by the students enrolled in his class, and this culminated in a meeting with members of the administration which took place in April 1968.

From that time, the matter was shunted around for months as the administration did everything it could to avoid confronting the issue.

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

It must be noted that Professor Anderson was exonerated by the administration but we, the students who laid the complaints, did not get the opportunity to present our case to an impartial body.

Among the statements made about us was that, as affirmative action students, we were not capable of handling the material and that we blamed Anderson for our limitations.

Fifty years later, this is the collective record of the six students:

  • Terrence Ballantyne went on to complete a law degree.
  • Douglas Massop graduated as an M.D.
  • Kennedy Fredrick did not complete his degree and had a stress-induced breakdown.
  • Wendel Goodin completed two Masters degrees.
  • Allan Brown completed a PhD in biology.
  • And I, Rodney John, finished a PhD in psychology and an LLM (ADR).

Equally problematic is both the occupation and the destruction of the computers.

As is generally known, a sit-in (occupation) is a strategy often employed by social movements, and it was a common tactic widely employed during the period. As the April 23, 1968 Columbia University occupation in New York illustrated, often these protests were met with police brutality, however, the riot police who dealt with the Sir George Williams students were in a class of their own.

In the early morning of Feb. 11, the police were brought to the Hall Building through the garage and up to the 13th floor. After the students had all gathered in the computer centre, Professor Chet Davis asked the acting principal, D.B. Clarke, to have the police allow the "students" to leave the occupation peacefully. Clarke refused the entreaty, stating that they were waiting on the arrival of the riot police.

Furthermore, the police, the RCMP, the administration all had agents infiltrating the occupation. They were involved in a variety of dirty tricks, with one agent who was later exposed in the media involved in a suggested plot to place dynamite in the elevator shaft. I would posit that if someone had been persuaded to advocate the dynamiting of the university, they would have had no qualms about destroying the computer centre.

The Hall building computer centre was occupied for two weeks in 1969. (Ninth Floor)

In retrospect, we were fighting a battle we could not win. The university had no mechanism for dealing with the issues we handed them and, as we were minorities, their position was that we had no rights that they were obliged to respect.

All we were asking was for the right to be heard.

I must say that over the years, I have had differing assessments of the impact of the whole affair.

While everyone is aware of the financial cost to the university, the cost to the students — not only the ones arrested — is never mentioned, much less calculated.

However, having had the opportunity to be part of the commemorative experience, I am persuaded that the lessons of that event will continue to resonate with the younger generation, and it will not all have been in vain.


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About the Author

Rodney John

Sir George Williams University student involved in the 1969 'crisis'

Rodney John was one of the original six black biology students who stepped forward to complain about the treatment they received from professor Perry Anderson. John and hundreds of other students barricaded themselves in the computer room on the ninth floor of the university's Hall Building. Rodney John now lives in Toronto and is 77 years old.

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