Then and now: Concordia’s history of supporting immigrants

Recent CSU election referendum question shows students support creating sanctuary campus

Concordia students voted in favour of recognizing the university as a sanctuary campus, based on a referendum question asked during the Concordia Student Union (CSU) elections held between March 28 and 30.

While the vote expressed student support by students for Concordia becoming a sanctuary campus, the final decision to become one rests with the university.

As a sanctuary campus, the university would be prohibited from disclosing information about current or past students, faculty or staff to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), protecting them from deportation. The vote follows Montreal’s decision to become a sanctuary city in a unanimous vote by the city council on Feb. 20.

While these votes represent a recent surge in support for protecting immigrants, Concordia has a long history of providing a safe space to immigrants and fighting to end oppression on campus.

Before receiving its university charter in 1948 and merging with Loyola College in 1974 to become Concordia, Sir George Williams College was first known as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA opened in Montreal on Nov. 25, 1851, and was located at the intersection of des Récollets Street and Sainte-Hélène Street in Old Montreal. The school would move to Drummond Street in 1912 before moving again to its current location—the Hall building, which is the oldest building of Concordia’s downtown campus, opened in 1966.

Although the institution was initially a university solely for Canadian men, in 1870 the school began offering night classes open to women and immigrants, according to the YMCA.

As an influx of Jewish immigrants came to Canada between the 1920s and 1950s, McGill University had implemented a quota for the admittance of Jewish students, limiting this demographic to a certain number of spots, according to The Globe and Mail. As a result, many students who were turned away from McGill between the 1920s and 1950s ended up attending Sir George Williams College.

The fact that Sir George Williams College also offered night classes allowed mature students who worked during the day a chance to receive an education. In addition to the increase in Jewish students, the 1940s and 1950s saw an influx of veterans and immigrants attending Sir George Williams College.

In the 1960s, Canada altered its immigration policies, removing brazen racist immigration policies. In addition, changes in views on immigration led to the Quebec government taking the issue into their own hands during this decade by establishing a provincial immigration department.

These more reasonable policies allowed immigrants to enter Canada more easily, and Canada saw another influx of immigrants, particularly from the Caribbean. Although Sir George Williams University accepted many of these immigrants, a lot of these students faced systemic racism.

The Henry F. Hall building, opened on 1966. Photo courtesy of Records Management and Archives at Concordia.

For example, in the spring of 1969, students held a 14-day sit-in on the ninth floor of the Hall building in response to a lack of action on the part of the university with regards to a professor, Perry Anderson, allegedly giving black students low grades based on their race. The sit-in was initiated by Caribbean students who faced oppression and resulted in 400 students gathering in the computer lab in the Hall building to protest.

Aftermath of Sir George Williams Affair. Photo courtesy of Records Management and Archives at Concordia.

The sit-in ended in a riot, an unexplained fire in the Hall building and millions of computer cards and documents fluttering from the windows onto de Maisonneuve Boulevard and nearby streets. According to the CBC, 97 people were arrested and estimates at the time placed the total damages at about $2 million. The accused professor was found not guilty of racism in the summer of 1969. However, following this incident, the university amended its procedures and policies, implementing the Ombuds office—which provides aid and a informal resolution of concerns and complaints in regards to the application of university policies, rules and procedures—and a code of conduct, according to the CBC.

These events, known as the Computer Riots or the Sir George Williams Affair, was remembered at the time as the largest student occupation in Canada.

As Concordia has a long history of standing against forms of oppression, the CSU hopes the university will listen to the desires of the student body and become a sanctuary campus.

Photo courtesy of Records Management and Archives at Concordia.

“We need to remember our roots,” said Lucinda Marshall-Kiparissis, the CSU’s general coordinator. “One of the major parts of Concordia is the Sir George Williams campus.”

“It was … an institution for students who could not access something like McGill,” she added. [They] could still get an education that fit within their lives, their financial and time-based limitations and family obligations.”

Concordia being recognized as a sanctuary campus would be in keeping with the university’s history of supporting all of its students. “We have a mandate from students—this is something they want to see as a priority. Any team that comes forward is beholden to show that they advocate for that,” Marshall-Kiparissis said.

Aloyse Muller, the CSU’s external affairs and mobilization coordinator, is the one who proposed the idea, and was the main representative from the CSU pushing for its adoption. However, he said the sanctuary campus was a collective discussion and decision.

“A number of students and community members were involved in the process. We also consulted several times with Solidarity Across Borders,” he said. Solidarity Across Borders is a migrant justice network which originated in Montreal in 2003, that provides aid to individuals facing refugee systems and unjust immigration policies.

“The sanctuary campus referendum question was in line with previous positions adopted by the Council of Representatives,” Muller said. This includes the CSU’s position to oppose the CBSA on campus, to promote Concordia’s refusal to collaborate with the CBSA and the CSU’s endorsement of the right for all to move freely and unrestricted by borders.

“However, the executive felt that, for this kind of position, the student body needed to be consulted and this is why we sent it to referendum,” he added.

The Norris building, opened in 1956. Photo courtesy of Records Management and Archives at Concordia.

According to Muller, making Concordia a sanctuary campus will allow immigrant students to “frequent this university free from worry on these premises, and [know] that Concordia will not disclose any information it has about them to immigration services.”

In the fall, two CBSA agents visited campus to meet with Concordia security to collect information on a student, according to Muller and Marshall-Kiparissis.

“Concordia security has refused to disclose any information about their meeting and its purpose, but the CSU has filed an access to information request, and we hope to learn more about what happened,” Muller said. Marshall-Kiparissis said the university has postponed responding to the access to information request.

“I want to underline though that this vote did not make Concordia a sanctuary campus [yet], and that much work is left to implement these measures,” Muller said.

In order for Concordia to be officially recognized as a sanctuary campus, the demands voted on by students in the CSU election must be implemented by the university—this includes not allowing the CBSA on Concordia premises and not sharing any information about its past and current students, faculty and staff with immigration services.

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