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Student Life

Memories of the SGW Affair

Re-examining the socio-political climate of 1960s Montreal

In light of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Sir George Williams Affair, Protests and Pedagogy, a two-day conference commemorating the largest student occupation in Canadian history, took place at De Sève Cinema in the LB building on Feb. 8 and 9.

The series of panels saw speakers, academics and activists from across the country join together to share information and memories of the events on Feb. 11, 1969. Resituating the occupation within the broader socio-political context of racial tensions in the 1950s and 60s in Montreal, as well as globally, underpinned each discussion.

Michael O. West, professor of sociology, Africana studies and history at Binghamton University, kicked off the conference by giving some much-needed historical context to the occupation. On April 28, 1968, eight students approached the Dean of Students with the initial complaint regarding their biology professor. “1968 was a year of protests and rebellion worldwide,” said West. “The Sir George Williams Affair was deeply rooted in the revolution of 1968.” Twenty-two days before the students came forth with their initial complaint “was the assassination, on April 4, 1968, of the King of Love,” said West. “Martin Luther King.”

Following West, H. Nigel Thomas, an author of various novels, poems and scholarly texts, chaired the second panel discussion between four individuals who were all involved, in one way or another, with the events surrounding Feb. 11.

Clarence Bayne, a then-professor at Sir George Williams University; Philippe Fils-Aimé, one of the Hall building occupants as well as one of the 97 people arrested that day; Brenda Dash, a Montrealer who vocally supported the students and was also arrested; and Nancy Warner, then a student-supporter from McGill who was outside the Hall building on Feb. 11. Every panelist had unique, insightful details of the intentionally misrepresented protest-turned-riot, all to convey one theme: it’s time the truth got a fair hearing.

The 9th floor computer centre after Feb. 11, 1969. Archive photo courtesy of Concordia University.

“Many people saw a face of Montreal that they had never seen before. The sheer hostility, the racism, the things that were said to people,” said Warner. “The degree to which what we thought were the rules of due-process, of the people being treated like they had some kind of civil liberties, were dashed.”

Some major news outlet headlines from Feb. 11 and onwards read: “Police Stay Cool in Chaos” and “Riot Squad Impressive” (The Gazette, Feb. 12, 1969) in which police are praised for appearing “relaxed and in good humour,” as well as “Student Moderates Alienated—Extremists go it Alone,” (The Star, Feb. 12, 1969) which stated that black students wanted to “burn down the university.”

“Much has been said about the destructive danuma of February 11,” said West. “A favourite description became and remains: riot. It being assumed that the rioters and protesters were one and the same.”

To this day, the administration and major news outlets present the mysterious fire as a point of contestation from the riots that day, despite the fact that students were arrested and charged with arson, among other offences, in the ensuing trials.

“I am going to also make a few comments on the question of this fire at the computer centre. I will tell you things that I have never said or mentioned before,” said Fils-Aimé. “As we were in jail, I had the chance to talk with Rosie [Roosevelt Douglas] and I said ‘Rosie, did you start this fucking fire, man?’ and he said ‘Phillippe, I must tell you, I didn’t have to.’” Fils-Aimé went on to explain how Rosie speculated that an individual whom they knew to be a devoted anarchist was the arsonist.

Details of the brutal events that took place once the riot squad stormed into the Hall building have not been downplayed—they have been left out of the history books altogether. “It is true that a riot occurred at the computer centre,” said West. “Except the riot only began with the arrival of the Montreal police riot squad.”

“The black occupiers were singled-out for especially brutal retribution. Black women, as could be expected, got the worst of it,” said West. “Subjected to bigoted bile as well as sexual violence. [Black men’s] bodies were ground in broken glass, they were kicked in the groin and genitalia.”

The students who made the initial complaint were taking a biology course, many of whom had dreams of attending medical school and ascending to the professional realm of society. “In sum, the police riot was also an attack on black sexuality and black reproduction,” said West.

West explained that, in regards to holding the police and the university accountable for the riots, “that has occurred to no one; that is, no one in a position of authority.” Fils-Aimé left attendees with a metaphor: when history is written by the lions, you’ll never hear the side of the antelopes. “In the process, truth became another victim,” said West. “It’s time, officially, that truth got a hearing at Concordia University. It’s time.”

Feature photo by Alex Hutchins

Categories
Student Life

The rebranding of history

“Blackout” questions how much has changed since 1969

Between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11 1969, about 200 students occupied the ninth floor computer centre of then Sir George Williams University to protest the administration’s mishandling of racism complaints. In nearly all media coverage of the occupation and its aftermath, you’ll read about the $2 million of damage and a mysterious fire, which was all blamed on the students. But you’ll have to do a bit of digging before you come across any information about the nine months these students spent trying to get various professors, student representatives and the administration to legitimately consider their complaints.

Blackout: the Concordia Computer Riots interweaves the coming together of six students who only wanted to be graded justly, the administration’s inexcusable negligence towards their complaints, and how a simple bureaucratic request revealed multiple layers of systemic prejudice. “Whenever there is a question of authority, everyone is involved, and the response [to that scrutiny] can reveal a lot about their motives,” said Tamara Brown, assistant director and part of the writing unit. “An adequate response would have been, ‘Let’s examine this fairly,’ but that didn’t happen, which says a lot.”

About 14 months ago Mathieu Murphy-Perron, owner of the production company Tableau D’Hote Theatre, gathered a handful of talented artists and performers to begin researching and writing what became Blackout. Through the perfect marriage of music, spoken word and creative lighting, Blackout creates a critically immersive, yet unapologetically political view of one of the largest student occupations in Canadian history.

The performing cast of Blackout came out for a second time to bow in front of a standing ovation on opening night. Photo by Alex Hutchins.

The initial six students—played by Briauna James, Gita Miller, Shauna Thompson, Kym Dominique-Ferguson, Michelle Rambharose, and Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards—are all introduced while sitting together, sharing stories of frustration over the grades they’re receiving in a biology class.

Exploring the months that led up to the occupation is extremely important, considering that most media coverage downplays the more than a dozen complaints against this one biology professor. As their frustration grows, the six students ask their white friend, played by Lucinda Davis, to swap papers with one of them, played by Thompson, to see if the grades changed. Davis received a 90 on her paper, while Thompson received a 68, and this process was repeated with about six different students, garnering the same result each time.

Blackout shines a light on the story’s details, such as those mentioned above, that are predominantly left out of any mainstream coverage of the protest. What makes Blackout particularly unique is the interaction between the audience and performers in real time. By switching from dark, artistic lighting to completely illuminating the stage, the cast breaks the fourth wall throughout the play, occasionally speaking directly to the audience and asking them to further critically engage with the information they’ve presented.

“Can we take a moment to talk about this fire?” said Davis to the audience. “The fact that, even now, 50 years later, history would have it that it was the students who started it?” A mixture of approval-snapping and mhmm’s rose from the audience in response. “Yeah, that is some serious retcon-ing [retroactive continuity] shit right there,” said Dakota Jamal Wellman, one of the performers. The pair go on to logically unpack the students’ precarious situation of being barricaded inside the location where the fire was started, asking the rhetorical question of why anyone would start a fire in a place they cannot escape efficiently. Wellman continues by telling the audience how students had to use an axe to chop down a door in order to escape the flames; a door that was locked from the outside. “And they would have you believe that it was the students who started a motherfucking fire?” said Davis.

The seamless oscillation between engaging the audience as performers and as the students they played allows viewers to both humanize the students and their experiences, while also reminding audiences that they will never truly understand the alienation the students must have felt. While now, the protest is largely praised for resisting top-down power dynamics, at the time, “[the students] didn’t have support from the population, or from the media or from society,” said Lydia Dubuisson, part of the writing unit for Blackout. The politically charged play raises many important questions: whose side of history are you on? Why did it take so much to ask for so little? Why was property valued over humanity? After almost two hours of highlighting how much history was rebranded by the university’s administration, attendees leave already knowing the answer to these questions.

About 14 months after the protests-turned-riot, the very theatre Blackout performed in was named after the university’s president throughout the occupation: D.B. Clarke. In 1974, only 5 years after the occupation, Sir George Williams University and Loyola College merged to become Concordia University.

Blackout will have shows every evening until Feb. 9th at 8 p.m. with the final show at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10th.

Feature photo by Alex Hutchins

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