Sir George Williams affair
|Sir George Williams Riot|
The Henry F. Hall building in 1970
|Date||January 29, 1969EST)(|
|Target||The Henry F. Hall Building|
The Sir George Williams Riot (also referred to as "The Sir George Williams Computer Incident") was a 1969 event at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, now a part of Concordia University. It was the largest student occupation in Canadian history, and resulted in $2 million of property damage.
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The Sir George Williams riot has been labelled as a riot when in fact it originated as a peaceful protest until the police arrived to remove protesters occupying the computer center in the Henry F. Hall building. The roots of the conflict go back to 1968 when six West Indian students accused biology professor Perry Anderson of discrimination because of unfair grading. These accusations were laid against Anderson in May 1968. There was no meeting held to discuss the incident and to find a solution. Eight months later, students took matters into their own hands by organizing meetings, sit-ins and peaceful protests. 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.
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 Sir George Williams and organized by black alumni and some professors and other members of the university. It was intended to engage 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.
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.
In Montreal, the estimated population of black people was 7,000 in 1961 which 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. 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.
Beginning on January 29, 1969, over 400 students occupied the university's computer lab. The occupation was sparked by the university's handling 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.
A negotiated settlement was reached on February 10 however the riot police were called in to remove the protesters illegally occupying the computer center on February 11 after approximately 100 protestors refused to leave. These protestors and their ring leaders barricaded themselves in the computer lab and started to break windows and threw phones, computer tapes, punched cards and other objects from the 9th floor of the Hall building into the streets creating a hazard for pedestrians. A fire broke out in the computer lab, forcing these protestors out of the building; 97 of them were arrested. Once in custody, they were divided by race. The computer lab was destroyed, resulting in over $2 million in damage. The charges against most of the rioters were eventually dismissed however the ring leaders of the riot were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two years to four months.
Several of the protestors had privileged backgrounds, coming from wealthy West Indian families; among those arrested and convicted were Roosevelt Douglas, who later became Prime Minister of Dominica, and who was a son of one of the richest men in Dominica. Also arrested was Anne Cools, now a Canadian Senator. Deeply involved also was student Cheddi "Joey" Jagan, Jr., son of Guyana's prime minister.
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.
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.
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 riot 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.
In February 2014, director Mina Shum and producer Selwyn Jacob began shooting in Montreal on a National Film Board of Canada feature documentary entitled Ninth Floor, about the Sir George Williams Affair. Filming coincided with the 45th anniversary of the incident. The film had its world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, on September 12. The film focuses on individuals who were connected to the incident, and how it shaped their lives. The film shows the events at the time, and follows up on the lives of those involved decades later.
- Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. p. 3.
- Mills, Sean (2010). The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activitsm in 1960s Montreal. McGill-Queen's University Press.
- Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. p. 7.
- Forsythe, Dennis (1971). Let The Niggers Burn. Black Rose Books. pp. 78–81.
- Pruden, Keith (2004). The Georgian Spirit in Crisis: The Causes of the Computer Centre Riot. Concordia University Department of History. pp. 3–4.
- 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.
- 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, p.517 JSTOR 20064231
- series: Turning Points in History; episode: "Sir George Williams Computer Riot"
- 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
- "Documentary to explore 1969 Montreal student protest". Halifax Chronicle-Herald. The Canadian Press. 13 February 2014. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
- Brownstein, Bill. "The view from The Ninth Floor". Montreal Gazette. 20 February 2014. Archived from the original on 26 February 2014. Retrieved 21 February 2014.
- "Ninth Floor documentary looks back at Montreal's 'Computer Riot'". CBC News. 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2015-10-20.
What came to be known as the Computer Riot — a violent protest and sit-in against racism at a Montreal university — is the subject of a new National Film Board documentary that premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is called Ninth Floor.