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News

Concordia inches forward with the promises of the president’s task force on anti-Black racism

Four months after its announcement, the first recommendations outlined in the task forces final report are starting to reach fruition

On Feb. 6, Concordia’s President and Vice Chancellor Graham Carr unveiled a temporary plaque to commemorate the 53rd anniversary of the 1969 Black student protests. The plaque, which will be replaced with a permanent plaque in the coming months, stands as a reminder of the events that lead to the protests and the presence of anti-Black racism at the University. 

Angélique Willkie, former head of the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, said it was important for the university to commemorate the significance of the 1969 Black student protests ahead of the upcoming anniversary. 

Willkie elaborated on the added importance of marking the site of the Sir George Williams protests with a physical representation of the event.

“And subsequently, it remains the location of the largest student protest for anti-Black racism in Canada,” said Willkie. 

The event was the first of many initiatives that the University intends to implement in hopes to combat anti-Black systemic racism within the institution. In late October, President Carr pledged his support for the 88 recommendations included in the final report of the President’s task force on anti-Black racism. Concordia’s official apology is primarily in relation to the mismanagement of Sir George Williams University’s former administration throughout the 1969 Black student protests

In addition to the commemorative plaque, the University also launched a website detailing the experiences of those who lived through the events of 1969. Willkie also stated that the University is pursuing its plans to create a new program for Black and African diaspora studies in the Canadian context, as well as founding a Black Student Centre.

Willkie says that since the anti-Black task force disbanded in the fall of 2022, she is no longer responsible for the implementation of the task force’s recommendations. However, Willkie insisted that the university intends to actively pursue all of the recommendations outlined in their final report. 

“So there are many things ongoing, but of course, not everything has the same timeline, either,” said Willkie. “So certain things can be completed relatively quickly, others less quickly.”

Willkie said that she has experienced no pushback from individuals, but rather from institutions as a whole.

 “Institutions have square wheels, and they’re made to reproduce themselves” said Willkie. “So somehow or another in order for the system to work differently it takes a while for the actual procedures to change. In the meantime I kind of go around them,” she added.

Despite this, Willkies said that the cooperation of the University and actors within it should be a point of celebration. 

“When those 88 recommendations were published, none of them came as a surprise to any of the people who were responsible for their implementation,” said Willkie. “They had all been consulted beforehand, every single one without exception. And that’s huge.”

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Student Life

50 years later: Re-examining the past

A closer look at the role of student journalism in the SGW Affair

With the Sir George Williams Affair, one tends to think about the riots, the violence and the destruction of property, amongst other things. The Affair took place between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11, 1969, when students overtook the seventh and ninth floor computer centres in the Hall building. The students occupied the centres to protest anti-black racism in classrooms. It started as a peaceful protest, but turned violent after the riot police got involved, and was later classified as the largest student occupation in Canadian history. According to CBC, about 200 students occupied the computer centre for roughly two weeks, and on the day of the police riot, 97 arrests were made.

Most accounts of the events that took place focus on the occupation, the involvement of the police, and the destruction of the computer centre that resulted in $2 million worth of damage. While we can expect there to be more to the story than what’s available, what most often don’t consider the integral role that student journalism played in the SGW Affair. The Georgian, the student newspaper at the time, was there from the beginning, covering the events leading up to the Affair, giving readers a more complete version of what happened.

A pop-up exhibition in the CJ building’s media gallery is a continuation of the Protest and Pedagogy event series. Photo by Victoria Blair

As a continuation of the Protest and Pedagogy event series that was held from Jan. 30 to Feb 16, a pop-up exhibition in the media gallery of the CJ building on the Loyola campus offers a glimpse into these events from a different and more personal perspective.

“It was a very important part of the whole process,” said Christiana Abraham, curator of the pop-up exhibition and a Communications Studies professor at Concordia. “It played an important role in mediating and reporting on what was going on during the occupation, and before the occupation started.” The Georgian acted as a platform to send a clear message to large numbers of students, similar to today’s social media. Its writers were authorized to go in and out of the occupied spaces, allowing them to report on the events as they were happening.

This archival material included a lot more information than the mainstream press; it often offered more details and context about what was really happening. Our perception and remembrance of the events might have been different if the mainstream press had included these details.

The SGW Affair took place between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11, 1969. Photo by Victoria Blair.

“It offered a different narrative of the events,” said Abraham. “It’s given us other kinds of truths and representations as compared to the historical narrative that we have.” The representation of the events portrayed by the mainstream press did not include many truths like this. They did not accurately portray the students and their frustration, the solidarity between them and the strong female roles that came out during the event.

“The mainstream press made it out to appear as if it was a very racialized event, between black and white,” added Abraham. “But when you start looking through these archives, you come to see that there was a lot more solidarity than we have come to know.” The Georgian published the names of all 97 students who were arrested and went on to add how a majority of the students arrested were white. These 97 names included the names of some of the women involved in the Affair. One of the women arrested was Anne Cools, one of the protesters who later became the first Black person to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

“I was really impressed with the professionalism of the student press at the time,” said Abraham. “Even fifty years later, they are a very important source for us. They gave us an inside view of what was going on that the mainstream press didn’t offer.” The pop-up gallery presents visitors with a new and more intimate perspective on the events that took place 50 years ago. The CJ building media gallery is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until March 29.

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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

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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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Opinions

Learning from the 1969 Computer Centre Occupation

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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