Previously published in the Westmount Examiner.
In February of 1969 I was an undergraduate student at what was then Montreal’s Sir George Williams University. Its principal edifice, the Henry F. Hall building, had been opened to the institution’s academic community two and half years earlier and was, as I recall, still in pristine condition – very much the flagship of the ever-expanding educational facility. In fact, only a month earlier, Time Magazine in an article in its Canadian edition depicted Sir George (as it was more affectionately styled within the city) as a very ‘dynamic’ university.
To set further the time component to this brief retrospective, Expo’67 took place only two years earlier, Pierre Trudeau had been Prime Minister of Canada less than ten months, and the Woodstock happening would transpire that coming August.
Just the year before, demonstrations and protests brought much of the world to the brink of an unprecedented post war precipice. In May of 1968 the streets of Paris were battlegrounds between the forces of order and those of rebellion while only three months later the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia dashed the exhilarating hopes of the ‘Prague spring’. The United States had its own tragedies that year with the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy as well as somewhat later the unforgettable street mayhem outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. What’s more, virtually everywhere American campuses were erupting in anti – Vietnam war activity, particularly those of Columbia and Berkley. Even Canada was not immune to political violence that year as was clearly illustrated by the bloody confrontation that took place at the 1968 St. Jean Baptiste festivities near Lafontaine Park.
So it was in the context of widespread fury and insurgence, that, forty years ago, the Sir George Williams University troubles occurred. What started as an isolated charge of racism against one university professor later recast itself into an unrelenting struggle waged by disaffected and restless youth in opposition to the ‘Establishment’. It seemed that the lexicon of the ‘counter culture’ had arrived in Montreal as well.
Briefly, on Wednesday, January 29, the computer centre was seized and occupied by about 400 student radicals, while only a week later, on February 4, the revolt spread to the Faculty Club on the seventh floor which was also taken over by the militants. Initially, the occupations were peaceful but when on February 11 negotiations between the university administration and student representatives broke down, the Montreal Police were called in.
Shortly before their arrival, however, the activists trashed the seventh floor cafeteria, de-activated escalators, elevators and telephone lines, prior to barricading themselves within the five-room computer centre two floors above. The unchecked rampage lasted a full six hours. It was reported that the carefully fashioned floor-to-ceiling barrier was at least ten feet thick and that the hallways of the university were ankle deep in water from the fire hoses which had been turned on by the defiant students before they headed up to the ninth floor. For a brief period of time, the radicals actually held control of the top seven storeys of the Hall building.
When, around noon that same day, the police riot squad was finally given the order by the university authorities to expel the activists from the occupied data centre, a fire suddenly and mysteriously broke out within it. Seconds later, all pandemonium broke loose, causing many to cry frantically for help to the thousands of mostly unsympathetic onlookers gathered in the streets below.
The blaze, however, was quickly extinguished while at the same time some 97 individuals (including Roosevelt Douglas, a future prime minister of Dominica) were arrested, 69 of whom were Sir George Williams University students. Seven were juveniles. Simultaneously, five policemen were injured in the course of the fracas to re-take control of the university during which the ultra modern, 1969 epoch, computer centre was completely trashed. Estimates of total damage ran as high as $2,000,000. As luck would have it, however, the final confrontation lasted all of an hour and fifteen minutes.
It was the biggest student riot in Canadian history, and it left me (and many others) somewhat bewildered with the turn of events. Needless to say, by the time of the final and sensational unravelling of the crisis on that cold day in February, the university community was deeply divided. I recall now that I had several very well-intentioned acquaintances holed up within that same computer centre complex on the ninth floor. I, however, refused to take part. Fighting racism (I thought) was one thing; fighting the so-called Establishment quite another, and far from the original arguments put forward in favour of such contentious action.
Nevertheless, it is one of those frequent paradoxes of history that Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) is in all likelihood a better, more open and welcoming institution today precisely because of what transpired in the Hall building some forty years ago. At any rate, at least I hope so.
Here are some more pictures of the event.