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Opinion The ironies and tragedies of the Sir George Williams affair, the ‘riot’ that changed a nation

Members of the Montreal riot squad prepare to frisk and question several of the 100 students involved in the occupation of the cafeteria and computer centre at Sir George Williams University, in Montreal, in a Feb. 11, 1969, file photo.

Montreal Star via The Canadian Press

Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is the W. L. Mackenzie King postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Harvard University. He is writing a book titled Cross-Border Cosmopolitans: The Making of a Pan-African North America, 1919-1992.

“Let the niggers burn! Let the niggers burn!” passersby chanted as smoke billowed from a university’s administrative building, choking the sky. Debris rained down onto a busy street as about 100 black students and their allies, down from the more than 400 who had started the peaceful occupation of the school’s computer centre, fled the inferno inside for resentment and epithets that awaited outside. Authorities claimed the destruction of that centre cost $2-million dollars, the most expensive student protest in the country’s history.

But this racist denunciation of student protesters did not occur in Mississippi, Memphis or Montgomery. It happened in Montreal on Feb. 11, 1969, at Sir George Williams University, which is today known as Concordia. And just as the October Crisis one year later exposed the long-simmering frustrations of many Québécois, the “riot” symbolized the bubbling over of Canadian society’s racism, and the potential for racial conflict.

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The circumstances that precipitated the protest had been on the boil for years. By the mid-1960s, according to scholars such as Sean Mills and David Austin, Montreal had become one of the most important sites for black radicals. These intellectuals and activists spearheaded study groups, conferences and committees, heightening the consciousness of Montreal’s black community. The straight-shooting activist Anne Cools, for instance, honed her anti-racist politics in this community. And Roosevelt (Rosie) Douglas, a postgraduate student at McGill University and another leader of the student occupation, cut his activist teeth in similar circles as Ms. Cools.

Emigrating from Dominica to Canada in 1961, Mr. Douglas found himself at an ideological crossroads during this period of intellectual ferment and Pan-African organizing. In the mid-1960s, he participated in initiatives of the Young Progressive Conservatives – a farm team responsible for yielding future politicians, bureaucrats and engaged citizens. In fact, after immigrating to Canada, Mr. Douglas befriended John Diefenbaker, visiting the prime minister in Ottawa and even meeting Olive, his wife. It was Mr. Diefenbaker who pulled Mr. Douglas into the orbit of the federal Progressive Conservatives, hoping that the young, ambitious and charismatic Dominican would run for the PCs in Halifax.

Although Ms. Cools and Mr. Douglas hailed from the Caribbean’s black bourgeoisie, they eventually squared off against members of their own economic class as student activists in Canada. Mr. Douglas’s own politics swung from Progressive Conservative to Black Power and Pan-Africanism within a decade, as he saw structural racism stall the pendulum of social change.

The country’s elites underappreciated the potency of social inequity, even as black activists denounced structural racism. In a November, 1968, New York Times review of Federalism and the French Canadians, a collection of Pierre Trudeau’s essays, the eminent communications theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote, “No American President … can approximate his range of awareness or his reading of men and affairs.” Mr. Trudeau’s bicultural anglophone and francophone heritage sharpened his intuition. In other words, he, too, had a “double consciousness” of sorts. For this reason, Mr. McLuhan asserted that the charming prime minister “would find no difficulty in coping with the American dilemma of the Negro.”

This gross miscalculation revealed the depth of ignorance on matters of structural racism. In a humbling twist of fate, Canadian society experienced its own “Negro dilemma” just a few days after Mr. McLuhan’s commentary. Activists at Sir George renewed their demands for redress because six Caribbean students at the university had alleged that their biology professor gave failing grades to his black students regardless of the quality of their work. Administrators had agreed to investigate the complaints, but prevaricated for months. And by the time intellectuals and activists met in Montreal in October to discuss national and international injustices affecting the African diaspora, the climate had become ominous.

On Jan. 29, 1969, protesters began their occupation of the computer centre at Sir George, and Rosie Douglas and Anne Cools stood among them. Mr. Douglas had by then acquired impressive bona fides: He worked with the Young Progressive Conservatives, associated with international Pan-Africanists, presided over the Association of British West Indian Students and played a leadership role, along with Ms. Cools, in Montreal’s black radical scene.

As the occupation wore on, and as Mr. Douglas sensed that the peace would unravel, he called his mentor, the former prime minister. Mr. Douglas later told the media that Mr. Diefenbaker had dismissed the cause: “If the students occupy any section of the building during winter, they [the administration] should turn the heat off and let them freeze to death.” Betrayed, he informed Mr. Diefenbaker that the occupation “was a fight for black people to have a stake in the nation.”

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Although Mr. Diefenbaker had advocated anti-discrimination as a lawyer and politician, he perceived Mr. Douglas’s generation of militant Pan-Africanists as a destabilizing force. The struggle, Mr. Douglas assured his mentor, had nothing to do with “malice” in the hearts of the protesters, but everything to do with effecting racial “justice.”

Instead of turning off the heat, as Mr. Diefenbaker suggested, the administration colluded with the police after negotiating with students on Feb. 10. The police stormed the computer centre the next day. In the ensuing pandemonium, someone (possibly the police or an agent provocateur, according to my research) set the computer centre ablaze, smoking out the occupiers. Some threw punch cards out the ninth-floor window.

After the ordeal, black communities bore the backlash, even though the student coalition was interracial. The RCMP, fearing black self-assertion, strengthened its co-operation with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, infiltrating black civic groups with agent provocateurs who tried to entrap organization members.

The Sir George activists suffered, too. Anne Cools spent four months in jail. Rosie Douglas received the harshest sentence, 30 months. After serving his time, the government deported Mr. Douglas and other participants to the Caribbean. The aftershocks of Sir George, in fact, reverberated beyond Montreal. When authorities convicted and deported 14 Trinidadian students involved in the “riot,” Canada received indemnities from the Trinidadian government. Enraged, student activists took to the streets to express solidarity, anger at Canada and disappointment in their feckless government. Their protests helped spark the 1970 February Revolution that nearly toppled the government.

Mr. Douglas would later become prime minister of Dominica. Ms. Cools went on to serve in Canada’s Senate for 34 years.

The violent confrontation that the state initiated against peaceful protesters at Sir George Williams University 50 years ago remains one of the most prominent examples of anti-racist struggle in postwar Canada. And the tragic irony is deep. Among black folk and other racialized peoples in 20th-century Canadian society, those of Caribbean extraction played an outsize role in fighting racism. And it was African descendants, collectively – sleeping-car porters, domestic workers or university students – who helped champion human rights and inclusion, ideals on which Canada now prides itself.

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