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How the Sir George Williams protest changed the conversation about racism in Canada

The Sir George Williams affair — or Sir George Williams riot — made headlines around the world and transformed Montreal's black community. Half a century later, people in Montreal are gathering at plays, community events and exhibitions to reflect how those 13 days changed the conversation about racism in Canada. David Gutnick's documentary explores its significance, both then and now.

50 years ago, Montreal students occupied a university computer room for 13 days to protest discrimination

Rodney John is pictured in Montreal on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. Fifty years after what became known as the Sir George Williams University computer riot, 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)
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In February 1969, Rodney John was a skinny biology student, with a quick smile, in a fight that would change his life.

Born on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, John was an academic star who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Because there was no university at home, he moved to Montreal to attend Sir George Williams University — now Concordia University — where, for several years, he got the high marks he needed to get into medical school.

But when biology professor Perry Anderson gave him and five other West Indian students low grades, the students accused Anderson of discrimination and demanded an investigation.  

"All of the West Indians in that class had ... some personal interaction with Anderson that raised questions," said John, now 77.

On Jan. 29, 1969, after 10 months of inaction by the university, John and hundreds of other students barricaded themselves in the computer room on the ninth floor of the university's Hall Building.

On Jan. 29, 1969, hundreds of Sir George Williams students, including Rodney John, barricaded themselves in the computer room of the university's Hall Building. (Concordia University Records Management and Archive (1074-02-037))

They began a standoff that would last 13 days.

The Sir George Williams affair — or Sir George Williams riot — made headlines around the world and transformed Montreal's black community. When it was all over, $2 million worth of equipment had been destroyed and 97 people were arrested.

"Fifty years ago, there were hundreds of people lined up around the building, looking at the students in the window and watching computer cards fall from the sky — just like the snowflakes that are falling from the sky right now," said David Austin, the author of Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal.

"It was a huge event ... probably the most important student protest in Canada in the 1960s, and one of the most important global student protests."

The streets surrounding the university were littered with papers and pieces of smashed computers after student protesters threw them from the ninth-floor windows. (Concordia University Records Management and Archive (1074-02-037))

Half a century later, people in Montreal are gathering at plays, community events and exhibitions to reflect how those 13 days changed the conversation about racism in Canada.

Stokely Carmichael comes to town

Trinidad-born American civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, the radical former Black Panther leader, died in November 1998. (Keystone/Getty Images)

In 1968, when John and the other students filed their complaint against their professor, black liberation movements were getting louder and stronger around the world.

In the U.S., the Black Panthers called for armed resistance. Throughout Africa, there were anti-colonial uprisings.

For a week, Montreal became the centre of the Black Power universe. At the International Congress of Black Writers, Trinidadian-born black activist Stokely Carmichael gave a fiery speech about the "deep ingrained racism produced by white western society."

What the Sir George Williams students heard there gave them a new perspective on what was happening to them in Anderson's biology class.

"We had got accustomed to living with the racism. It was part of the landscape, part of the white noise that you had to accept," said John.

"Each and every one of us had had some personal experience with being discriminated against," he said.

The complaint, and the protest, "became an opportunity for people to stand up for themselves."

Thirteen days into the occupation of the computer centre, the students thought they had reached a deal with the university and began to clean up the room.

But then they realized there was no agreement.

They barricaded themselves in the room and started destroying computers and tossing pieces out the window. A fire broke out.

John remembers a mob outside the building chanting: "Let the n--gers burn."

"Within the mob were people that I knew as students," he said.

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      After the 1969 affair, Sir George Williams revamped a few key policies, established an ombudsman's office and adopted regulations on the university's rights and responsibilities. Anderson was cleared of all charges of racism by the university.

      Many of the students protesters were given amnesty and returned to class to get their degrees.

      Their leaders didn't get off so lightly. Rosie Douglas and Anne Cools were sent to jail.

      The front page of a local student newspaper, two years after the protest. (Submitted by the Alfie Roberts Collection)

      Douglas — like some other West Indian students — was later deported and eventually became the prime minister of the Caribbean island of Dominica.

      Cools helped found one of Canada's first women's shelters and retired as a Canadian senator in August 2018.

      A community wakes up

      The backlash to the protests wasn't confined to campus. It was also directed at the larger black community in Montreal, said Yvonne Greer, a retired school guidance counsellor who was 20 when the protests happened.

      "People who were once friendly or at least polite to black people now came out and [were] telling anybody black, 'Go back where you came from,'" she said.

      Even though she wasn't a student at Sir George Williams, what happened there changed the direction of her life, and her community.

      Some black Montrealers were initially opposed to the protesters, many of whom were newcomers from the Caribbean.

      "They, like white people, thought that they were coming here and stirring up trouble. 'Everything was OK, and now look what they've done,'" Greer recalled people saying.

      The protest made racism in Montreal as a whole more overt, but residents like Yvonne Greer rallied around the student protesters and worked within the community to push back against discrimination. (Submitted by Yvonne Greer)

      But as the backlash to the student occupation made racism in the city more overt, more black Montrealers rallied around the students.

      "We worked with the students — not only to help them with their court charges … but to start something going in the community, to stand up to the racism that we were being confronted with," Greer said.

      The community organized a summer school to help local black students prepare for university. That summer school is still going today.

      Community associations sprang up. Two black community newspapers were born, and Greer became an editor at one of them.

      When police invaded the computer centre at Sir George Williams, "in a reverse, warped kind of way … [it] brought the black community to self-realization," Greer said.

      Blackout

      Fifty years later, the story of what happened at Sir George Williams has deep resonance for a younger generation.

      A new play called Blackout, written collectively by a theatre troupe called Table D'Hôte — made up of actors and former student activists — opened in Montreal on Jan. 30. 

      As actors in their 20s, some had never heard about the protests.

      "The fact that I can relate so heavily to them is both eye-opening but also sad and frightening," said actor Shauna Thompson.

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

      The play is being performed in the Hall Building — the very building where the computer centre occupation took place — on the same dates.

      Some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from recordings of the time. Other parts are imagined and updated with a Black Lives Matter sensibility.

      "It is 50 years ago to the year, and yet black communities all across Canada, in Montreal and in Ontario, in the east and west, are still asking for some of the most basic things, asking for respect, asking for a voice, asking for a place in society," said choreographer Rodney Diverlus, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto.

      Fight for social change continues

      Rodney John — one of the original student complainants — is 77 now.

      Though he finished his degree at Sir George Williams University, he never did become a doctor. Instead, he got a PhD in psychology and worked as a teacher, counsellor and mediator.

      He's still got fire in his belly.

      Students are seen tossing papers and computer cards out the window of a ninth-floor computer lab during the 1969 protest. (Concordia University)

      "We have not yet reached where the society should be. Therefore, do not rest on your laurels," he said.

      "Social change will only take place if the people are prepared to fight for it."

      Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's documentary.

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