Learning from the 1969 Computer Centre Occupation

Graphic by Ana Bilokin

50 years ago, a riot called the Sir George Williams Affair occurred at Concordia University. About 200 students occupied a computer centre here at Concordia for 14 days to protest institutional racism. What resulted was the largest student occupation in Canadian history and two million dollars in property damage.

Rodney John, one of the eight students who raised the initial complaint of racism against the university’s administration, said of the event’s survival in public consciousness: “The only thing people know is that there was an occupation, that the computers were destroyed,” in an article by CTV. We at The Concordian think that it is important to revisit the overlooked details in order to remember the event in its entirety, as the specifics may hold relevance to some of our own campus initiatives today.

Here is a brief timeline of the protest according to an essay titled “The Georgian Spirit in Crisis: the causes of the Computer Centre Riot,” written by Keith Pruden in 2004.

On Apr. 29, 1968, a cohort of eight students approached the Dean of Students, Magnus Flynn, with the claim that a lecturer in the biology department, Perry Anderson, was influenced by racial bias. The Dean promised to look into the matter, and students apparently “trusted the university to deal with the situation fairly.” On June 14, the university declared that “there is no substance to the charges of discrimination and racism leveled against Mr. Anderson,” and in the fall semester Anderson was promoted from lecturer to assistant professor.

On Dec. 5, the students approached the school principal, Dr. Rae, to find out why Anderson had been cleared. Dr. Rae knew little of the situation and agreed to set up an investigative committee. On Dec. 6, there was an emergency meeting in the Faculty of Science, and another on Dec. 12, both of which were unproductive and the students’ faith in the institution was diminishing. That day, Dr. Rae resigned from his position as principal. After several more meetings, the university set a hearing committee with the first meeting on Jan. 26. Students refused to comply with this procedure, however, since the committee was entirely chosen by the administration, and thus was obviously biased.

Only after all this—nine months of unresolved complaints—did the students’ frustration culminate into their occupation of the computer centre. The occupation was intended to get the university to agree to five specific demands concerning the judicial process around the Anderson matter. According to CTV, it remained peaceful until the police were summoned to remove protestors, which triggered a fire. It is disputed whether the fire was started by the police or by the students, but it had the immediate effect of smoking protesters out of the building. Also, this led to the physical destruction of the computer centre and the arrest of 97 students, according to the same source.

It is troubling that what is remembered most about this event, as Rodney John notes, is the occupation and destruction of property. Modern retellings fail to recognize that the university initiated the violence by sending in the police (who are no doubt responsible for some—perhaps all—of the property destruction in the centre). Instead, the media paints protesters as impulsive and destructive, when in reality, several attempts over almost a year’s time were made to negotiate with the university administration on their terms prior to the occupation.

This event can teach us about a strategy that seems to be used all too often—either intentionally or unintentionally—by the university, which is to lose people in the paperwork. Often, when bureaucratic issues like this are raised, the process is drawn for so long that complainants either forget, lose interest, or feel too helpless and move on from the issue. The 1969 protesters didn’t allow the university to get away with this strategy, and it resulted in them gaining coverage from every major news source in Canada, and being remembered 50 years later.

Students like the ones who took part in the Computer Centre Occupation have gradually helped to establish Concordia as a progressive school—or at least one with politically-conscious students. This can work in favour of current student-activist groups, since the student body’s potential for disruptive protests is well known, which gives certain bargaining power to campus groups. The computer occupation and similar protests serve as reminders to the administration that students are willing to persist and even put themselves in danger for issues that they feel strongly about. We feel that this reminder can only be effective, however, if we commit to remembering these events in their entirety.

Graphic by Ana Bilokin

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