September 2020 Volume 16

The Riot that Rocked Canada

Dr. Glen Laman
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It all started in May 1968 when six Caribbean biology students at Sir George Williams University, including Kingston College old boy Douglas Massop, formally accused biology professor Perry Anderson of discrimination because of alleged unfair grading. In one complaint, he gave wildly different scores for the exact same labs.

Several months later, with no action by the administration to address the complaints, students took matters into their own hands by organizing meetings, sit-ins and peaceful protests across campus. The university formed a committee to investigate the complaints but the students demanded a new committee when two black faculty members on it resigned. The students declared the hearing that followed a sham, as they did not agree with the composition of the committee.

In January 1969, several hundred students, most of them white, occupied the university’s computer lab on the ninth floor. Students from other universities such as McMaster and McGill also joined in the protests. KC Old Boy Lenworth Smith a friend of Massop’s who attended Mc Master’s was also a participant. They occupied the computer lab for nearly two weeks.

Many students would eventually leave the building feeling victorious when it appeared the administration had reached an agreement with the student complainants. The students had signed the agreement but administrators reneged. The remaining students felt betrayed by the administration and its response of calling Montreal riot police to remove them.

The riot police stormed the building and clashed with students who barricaded the halls. Students started throwing computer cards out the windows littering the streets below. Shortly thereafter a fire broke out in the computer lab forcing the students to evacuate. Damages were later estimated at over $1 million.

As the lab burned, angry crowds watching the scene from below chanted, "Let the niggers burn!" and "Burn, niggers, burn!" As the students tried to escape from the burning computer lab, police arrested them. The police beat some of them savagely. Once in custody, the students were separated by race.

The white students were released after paying a fine but several black students were convicted and served time in prison.

Many years later it was revealed that the police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the administration all had agents infiltrating the occupation. The media exposed one agent for being involved in a suggested plot to place dynamite in the elevator shaft. Many students remain suspicious of the origin of the fire, which they assert made no sense as they were locked inside the lab.

When a hearing was finally held the committee cleared Professor Anderson.

The Sir George Williams riot was a turning point in racial relations in Canada.

The incident forced a number of changes in the universities across Canada. Student representation on university decision-making bodies was established and university procedures and policies were revamped and modernized.

Among those arrested and convicted were Roosevelt Douglas, who later became Prime Minister of Dominica. Also arrested was Anne Cools, who became the first black and longest serving Canadian Senator. Deeply involved also was student Cheddi "Joey" Jagan Jr., whose father was a Premier of British Guyana and later President of independent Guyana.

Today, this is the collective record of the six students who complained:

  • Terrence Ballantyne went on to complete a law degree
  • Douglas Massop became a medical doctor
  • Kennedy Fredrick did not complete his degree and had a stress-induced breakdown
  • Wendel Goodin completed two Masters degrees
  • Allan Brown completed a PhD in biology
  • Rodney John, finished a PhD in psychology and an LLM (ADR)

In 2015, Selwyn Jacob, a Trinidadian, made a documentary movie about the riot. You can watch it at Ninth Floor.

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