50 years on, allegations at root of Sir George Williams riot forgotten
Sir George Williams riot, 1969
Fifty years after what became known as the Sir George Williams riot, one of the students whose allegations of racism triggered the explosive events says it's a shame they were never able to receive a fair hearing.
Rodney John was one of six black biology students at Montreal's Sir George Williams University who accused a professor of discrimination. A sit-in that began Jan. 29, 1969 ended with a riot and fire the following month.
John, now 77 and living in Toronto, says he is comforted that the events are still being talked about 50 years later, but he fears the focus is too much on the occupation and not enough on the initial grievances.
"Because what actually is the matter is that the general public's awareness of the issues goes back to the occupation -- what is lost is that our stories were not told," he said in an interview.
The anti-racism occupation of the computer lab in the Henry F. Hall building -- now a part of Concordia University -- remained peaceful until discussions about creating a panel to address racism allegations broke down. The university called in police to quell the riot on Feb. 11.
All told, 97 students were arrested in one of the largest occupations in Canadian student history. The incident attracted international headlines, accompanied by images of a fire in the ninth-storey lab and computer punch cards floating to the street. Damage to the lab was estimated at $2 million in 1969 dollars.
The professor, Perry Anderson, was ultimately exonerated in June of 1969 after an analysis of his notes concluded there was nothing to support the racism claims. He continued with his academic career. In a 2015 National Film Board documentary "Ninth Floor," Anderson's son claimed his father was guilty of cultural bias, not personal bias.
John said the university's failure to address such cultural bias was at the root of the incident. Complaints about Anderson raised during a meeting between students and the administration in the spring of 1968 were never properly reviewed by the university, he said, and when students returned to school in September, there was no record of the meeting.
"That set the stage for the events that then led up to the occupation and the subsequent conflict," John said. "It was mishandled from beginning to end."
Among the allegations was that black students routinely received lower marks than their white counterparts and that the professor addressed West Indian students by honorifics versus given names for white students.
At a time when getting into medical school was difficult and students faced significant racial barriers, the biology class was an important requisite. John, who went on to become a clinical psychologist, said they were looking for due process in a public forum, but that was not to be.
"Students in general had no rights, administrations had no responsibility and black students were to be seen and not heard," he said.
By the time the university agreed in late 1968 to convene a new body to look into the racism complaints, there was no agreement on what form the review should take.
"We had no opportunity to say -- look this is what we experienced, these are the reasons we were asking for a hearing," John said. "The only thing people know is that there was an occupation, that the computers were destroyed. That's the narrative that has survived for 50 years."
In the aftermath of the riot, the university instituted changes to give students a place in decision-making bodies and establish an ombudsman's office.
Among the more notable people arrested was the late Rosie Douglas, an activist who went on to become president of the Caribbean nation of Dominica. Former senator Anne Cools, the first black woman appointed to Senate, was also arrested after taking part in the occupation. She noted that many of the people arrested were white.
"Many people have tried to make it sound like a racial incident, but it was not," Cools said. "The people who should have taken charge of the matter -- those in authority who had power to correct things -- were reluctant to act, and as a result the students got more and more aggravated, and eventually a sit-in just happened spontaneously."
A few hundred students started the occupation and as word spread, by the end "every and anybody in Montreal was being drawn to it," said Cools.
How the fire broke out remains unclear. John, who was outside the university as things unravelled, recalled the fear as police held back some members of the public yelling expletives and saying the black protesters should be allowed to burn.
"I was among a small group of protesters and we were surrounded by a mob that was out for blood," John said. "The police protected us from being beaten up or being killed. It was that terrifying."
As for what happened inside the building, Cools said the way unarmed students were dealt with by authorities was wrong. "I view it all as unnecessary," she said. "The thing is nobody was hurt. In my mind, that was the real salvation."
A new play based on the incident, "Blackout," will debut Wednesday at the theatre housed in the basement of the same Concordia building in which the events took place.