Sir George Williams Affair

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Sir George Williams Computer Riot [1][1]
Sir george william 1970.jpg
The Henry F. Hall building in 1970.
Location Montreal
Date January 29, 1969 (1969-01-29) (EST)
Target The Henry F. Hall building

The Sir George Williams Affair was a 1969 event at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada, now a part of Concordia University. It was the largest student occupation in Canadian history.

Overview[edit]

In Montreal, the estimated population of black people were 7,000 in 1961 and the number increased to 50,000 in 1968. McGill University was the first choice of University for many students but since they had a strict admission policy and had a quota for Jewish students, they could not be easily accepted. On the other hand, Sir George Williams University had a more lenient admissions policy and accepted students from various backgrounds. Classes were offered during the day and night, which was convenient for students. Sir George Williams University was very popular among foreigners. [2]

Beginning on January 29, over 400 students occupied the university's computer lab. The occupation was sparked by the university's mishandling of racism allegations against professor Perry Anderson at the school. Fed up with what they considered to be intransigence on the part of the administration, black and white students left a meeting and occupied the university computer lab on the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall Building.

Most of the occupation was quite peaceful: the police were not involved, and negotiations continued. Some claim that the computer lab was not damaged, except for several million computer punched cards that were sent fluttering to the street below; but a Canadian Broadcast Corporation documentary shows smashed computer tape drives and extensive fire damage. The damage was listed in millions of dollars. It is unknown who caused the fire. The police accused the occupiers of the damages, while the occupiers accused the police of setting the fire as an easy way to get all the students out of the room without physically entering it. Other students also claim that they saw police locking doors and exits that were normally open and police confiscated fire axes from students the day before the fire was set.[3]

The occupation continued until February 11 when negotiations broke down and riot police were called in. A fire broke out in the computer lab, forcing the occupiers out of the building. 97 of them were arrested. The computer lab was destroyed, resulting in over $2 million in damage. Windows were broken and computer tapes[disambiguation needed] and punched cards tossed onto the street below. The charges against most of the rioters were eventually dismissed.

Among the occupiers arrested was Roosevelt Douglas, who later became Prime Minister of Dominica, and Anne Cools, now a Canadian Senator. Also deeply involved was student Cheddi "Joey" Jagan, Jr., son of Guyana's prime minister.

Background[edit]

The Sir George Williams Affair has been labelled as a riot when in fact was a peaceful protest until the riot police arrived. It all started in 1968 when six West Indian students accused biology professor Anderson of discrimination because of unfair grading.[4] These accusations were laid against Anderson on May 1968. There was no meeting held to discuss the incident and to find a solution. This issue could have been resolved promptly but it was not taken seriously by the administrators. Eight months later, students took matters into their own hands by organizing meetings, sit-ins and peaceful protests.[5] There were also additional events happening at the university and in the city of Montreal that contributed to the festering crisis and its destructive conclusion.[6]

In October 1968, a few months before the riot, Montreal hosted two conferences on the position of black people in society. The first conference was hosted at the University and organized by black alumni and some professors and other members of the University. The first was a conference engaging Black organizations across Canada represented by Black leaders from Halifax to Vancouver. According to "Expression", a quarterly publication of the Negro Citizenship Association Inc (Conference Issue Winter 1968) the purpose of the conference was to examine the "problems in the Canadian society with reference to Black people." The second, “The Black Writers Conference” was hosted at McGill University. This conference was focused on “the ideology of Black Power and Black Nationalism”. The two conferences held weeks apart and at the two different venues reflected formal agreements to disagree on priorities and span of action: domestic versus international. Both of these conferences contributed to the tensions at Sir George Williams University.[7]

Other elements that contributed to the riots were a series of miscommunications between the students and the University administration, and the nature of the University itself, which was an institution that encouraged non-traditional educational philosophy, openness and accessible higher education to a wider range of students from different backgrounds and different social standings.

Aftermath[edit]

The riot was covered extensively by the Canadian media: all of the television networks filmed the event live from outside the university. The occupation became a key event illustrating the widespread disaffection and rebelliousness among the nation's youth during the 1960s. The occupation led to greater openness at Sir George Williams, and other universities across Canada.

Assistant professor Perry Anderson was suspended for the duration of the crisis. He was reinstated on February 12, 1969, and on June 30, The Hearing Committee appointed to the case found that “there was nothing in the evidence (before them) to substantiate a general charge of racism”. He was found not guilty of racism towards the six complainants.[8]

The Computer Centre Riot forced a number of changes on the Sir George Williams University: Student representation on university decision-making bodies was established and university procedures and policies were revamped and modernized. In April 1971 Sir George Williams adopted University Regulations on Rights and Responsibilities and the Ombuds office was established.

The Sir George Williams affair also raises the question of racism in Canada. When the fire broke out during the destruction of the computer lab and many protesters were still in the building, white passerby yelled ″Let The Niggers Burn″. This incident sparked interest and raised questions internationally.[9]

In February 2014, director Mina Shum and producer Selwyn Jacob began shooting in Montreal on a National Film Board of Canada feature documentary entitled The Ninth Floor, about the Sir George Williams Affair. Filming coincided with the 45th anniversary of the incident.[10][11]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. p. 3. 
  2. ^ David Austen,All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada,The Journal Of African American History, Vol.92,2007,517
  3. ^ series: Turning Points in History; episode: "Sir George Williams Computer Riot"
  4. ^ Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. p. 7. 
  5. ^ Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. pp. 78–81. 
  6. ^ Pruden, Keith (2004). The Georgian Spirit in Crisis: The Causes of the Computer Centre Riot. Concordia University Department of History. pp. 3–4. 
  7. ^ Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn: The Sir George Williams Affair and It's [sic] Caribbean Aftermath. Black Rose Books. pp. 58–61. ISBN 0-919618-17-0. 
  8. ^ http://archives.concordia.ca/computer-riot
  9. ^ David Austen,All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean, and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada,The Journal Of African American History, Vol.92,2007,521
  10. ^ "Documentary to explore 1969 Montreal student protest". Halifax Chronicle-Herald (The Canadian Press). 13 February 2014. Retrieved 17 February 2014. 
  11. ^ Brownstein, Bill. "The view from The Ninth Floor". Montreal Gazette (20 February 2014). Retrieved 21 February 2014.