Features | An oral history of the 1968 Political Science student strike

In November 1968, the McGill Political Science Association (PSA) went on strike. There were no political science classes for two weeks. Eventually, students occupied the fourth floor of the Leacock building; Leninist students had more control of events than tenured professors. The strike ended in an enduring student victory.

If it sounds like something out of another world, it’s only partly so. In 1968, there was a student strike contagion going around. French students almost removed the government of Charles de Gaulle in May and June. Campuses across the U.S. roiled with protests against the Vietnam War. It did not seem strange for undergraduates to wield power.

In Quebec, the fever was as high as anywhere. 15 of 23 Quebec CEGEPs were on strike at some point that year – Rendez-Vous ‘68, it was called.

McGill students responded late and partially to what was happening in Quebec. This pattern, like so much else involved in the 1968 PSA strike – the rhetoric of radical and moderate, the tactics, the narrative arc  – will seem familiar to anyone who lived through last year’s student protests. The resemblance is often uncanny.

We compiled a history of the 45-year-old strike from newspaper archives, interviews with faculty and students, and footage from a 1970 National Film Board documentary called Occupation. The result will – we hope – provide perspective on  the events of last year, and on where we stand as students today.

Daily front page, October 4. Political Science was far from the only student association pushing democratization.

Arnold August, 1968 chairman of the PSA: “The late 1960s was ingrained in the minds of millions of young people in the world. We got a lot of inspiration from the United States, as well as Mexico, with the [Olympic] Games, where you had two Afro-Americans who won the Olympics and when they were given their medals they had their hands up [in the Black Panther salute]. These were the things that inspired us. Paris. The United States, where you had these massive demonstrations in front of the Democratic Convention, where hundreds of people were arrested. We were definitely conscious that we were part of the movement. It was in our blood at that time.”

September 27, 1968: The Daily reports that students are dissatisfied and are demanding that the Political Science department be democratized. They are seeking a “critical and socially relevant approach to political science.”

Sam  , McGill Political Science professor (retired 2005): “We had something called the Tripartite Commission on the nature of the university [between 1967 and 1970] – divided between administrators, faculty, and students. The Commission met for months and months and months. And what emerged from that was a recognition that students had a right to participate in university life at an important level – at a policy-making, a decision-making level.”

October 1, 1968: The PSA issues a three-page manifesto in The Daily. The manifesto calls for “change in political orientation of the University to one that is explicitly critical of the status quo.” Student Council member Harry Edel says PSA should “adopt the strategy and tactics of labour unions in negotiating.”

The Daily logo, stylish as ever. The paper also faced the same charges of left-wing bias as it does today. Plus ca change.

October 11, 1968: Political Science students meet with faculty for the first time and faculty agree to consider a motion to at least “partially democratize the Political Science department.”  Professor John Shingler suggests that student representation on committees would only add to the present bureaucracy.

October 18, 1968: Thus far, according to August, discussions with the department have not progressed. In a 164-6 vote, the PSA rejects the proposals on student participation made by the faculty. Later that week, three students make the rounds of Political Science classes, criticizing the PSA as a Marxist minority. The Daily reports that “in virtually every class, [the three students] were coldly received and their interpretation challenged.”

Harold Waller, McGill Political Science professor: “The Daily then, and probably now, was very biased in one direction. With the exception of 1970, when Charlie Krauthammer [now a neoconservative columnist for the Washington Post and Fox News contributor] was the editor, then it was a very sensible newspaper. So The Daily had an axe to grind, and they were totally in   of the students’ position and totally against our position. And therefore I don’t think the reporting was objective.”

August: “I remember one article in La Presse and one article in the Gazette – [the mainstream media] barely looked at it. They pretty much ignored it. The fact that the main media virtually ignored, while The McGill Daily supported it – I think that’s fine, that’s perfectly normal.”

November 1, 1968 PSA and faculty meet in an open meeting in the Leacock building. August says, “by reorganizing the department, along functional lines, the faculty has maintained a façade of democracy while making most decisions in secret.”

Waller: “The PSA was organized and led by what I later understood to be Marxist radicals. One of them was Arnold August, who might have been the head of it. Arnold later became very active in the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist, ran for parliament on that ticket.” [August ran for federal parliament as a member of the Marxist-Leninist party in 1979 and 1980; and then for the Quebec National Assembly on the same ticket in 1994.]

Noumoff: “[August] had this huge beard at the time. And people with huge beards were looked on at the time as somehow demonic. But it was also part of the uniform of the period.”

The PSA votes overwhelmingly to strike in what seems to be the Shatner Ballroom.

August: “In 1968, I was trying to find my way around politically. And then I read some passages by Marx, and then by Lenin, and then it clicked…At that time, 1968, I was not affiliated with any political party. There was a Students for Democratic Society at McGill – [Marxist political science lecturer] Stanley Gray was one of the leaders of it – I was part of that movement. We were basically left-wing people, for sure. We were against U.S. aggression all over the world – we supported Vietnam, we supported Cuba against the United States, we didn’t like the capitalist system. It wasn’t as sharp as one would have expected, but we were in favour of a new type of society that would be more appropriate for the vast majority of people.”

November 4, 1968: The Daily deems division between faculty and students “irreconcilable.” Chairman of the Political Science department J. R. Mallory says “hiring is a professional matter,” and that no students should be involved in the process.

November 7, 1968: The stalemate continues. Professors Waller, Breecher, Jackson, and Mallory form a commission on student grievances. August feels that the four were unlikely to be sympathetic to students.

Waller: “The essential demand was that students have parity in all aspects of department decision-making. Which meant everything from curriculum to tenure decisions to hiring and so forth. And here I was, a young assistant professor, who had no power, and now the students want to take away half of the power. So I wasn’t sympathetic to that at all.

“I just finished grad school myself – I didn’t think I should be making decisions at the grad school where I was. I thought that would have been quite…presumptuous on my part. And I thought it was presumptuous on the part of the students. I thought the job of shaping the curriculum and deciding on standards and deciding who to hire, or who to continue or give tenure to or promote, were basically professional decisions and should be made by professionals.”

Secretaries fled the 4th floor of Leacock – students took to answering phones with “Political Science, occupied. May I help you?”

November 11, 1968: The Daily reports that 20 per cent of the Political Science faculty would support student parity in many aspects of departmental government. The other 80 per cent could not be expected to support anything more than the one-third representation on the curriculum committee and one-fourth on the “Section” committee, which had already been granted. PSA says faculty are offering too little, too slowly.

Noumoff: “I was in support of them throughout the entire process. And the reason is, I simply believe it. Students are not just pampered, transitory members of the community. They have a stake in what goes on, in what is taught, in how it’s taught, in what the balance is in the department. Students are part of the community, and they should be respected as such, because, indeed, they have things to say which can be valuable.”

November 21, 1968: Faculty holds separate meeting to discuss their response to student demands. Students send all-dressed pizza to closed faculty meeting – faculty accepts alldressed pizza.  Still, faculty insists “no compromise,” stating that student demands represent “beyond what has been conceded in comparable universities. They represent a radical innovation.”

 

Student prank or Daily in-joke? It’s not clear.

Waller: “I didn’t think giving them half the power over decision-making was appropriate, and certainly not to that group of students, who had an agenda which I didn’t agree with on substance. Their agenda was to promote a left-wing view of political science…and I certainly did not subscribe to Marxism. I felt there was a place in the department for teaching about Marxism. For example, Stan Gray was doing that. But…I thought that the question of what you have on your reading list and what you should teach was a matter of your professional judgment, and it’s an invasion of academic freedom when someone, whether it’s students or departments or deans, tell you what and how to teach.”

November 24, 1968: In the face of the faculty’s refusal to compromise, PSA votes 319–179 to take direct action. 150 Political Science students occupy fourth floor of Leacock building after meeting. One secretary fled, apparently intimidated by the students: “Students are occupying the building. I can’t take any more calls,” she said. Female PSA members began answering the phone: “Political Sciences, occupied. May I help you?”

A suspected “right-wing militant” tried to enter the  fourth floor of Leacock later in the day; occupiers threatened to throw him down the stairs unless he left. “He left,” The Daily wrote. Three Montreal police officers also came to Leacock to manage an abortive bomb scare. A schedule of the day’s ad hoc seminars published in The Daily includes “Guerilla Warfare” at 10 a.m., followed by “The Correct Handling of Authoritarian Professors” at 11 a.m.

Harold Waller, who still teaches at McGill, tried to hold a class during the strike. Picketers broke it up after a bitter shouting match. 

August: “We made sure everything was clean, in terms of the washroom, in terms of the food, and everything like that; we took care of our own cleanliness.

We couldn’t leave the place because we didn’t want to give it up to the administration. So like any occupation, there are the normal difficulties of sleeping there. We had to have a basic, certain number of people who would hold the fort during the night. So we had to organize shifts for sleeping over. Organize food and coffee for people there. We would leave at 8 or 9 at night, so the shift that was sleeping over there would be from 8 to 9 to about 7 or 8 in the morning. So it was a long shift – it was rough…people sleeping on the floor. I don’t think futons existed at the time – I think we based ourselves on old-fashioned sleeping bags…. Me personally, I wouldn’t say I slept more than three or four hours a night.

I would say the prevailing mood was excitement. Because even though many of us, including myself, I wasn’t sure if [the strike] would actually work. When the strike vote was majority in favour, it was festive, because we sort of felt liberated…It was a very liberating feeling: here we are, going against the tide, bucking the status quo on a very important issue.”

Noumoff: “At the time there was a lot of bile and a lot of anger on the part of the students.”

Waller: “A number of my students came to me and they said, “look, we don’t support this action, and the PSA does not have the right to impose a shutdown of classes on us. If they want to stay home, that’s their business – we want to have a class, we want you to teach us.” There were about ten students in the class out of fifty or sixty or whatever.

So I was walking toward the classroom, and they were lined up behind me, following me. And we came to the door of the classroom. And there was a guy there from the PSA who was supposedly keeping people out. And I just kept walking. And he stepped back and I walked into the room and my students came after me. And we sat down in a circle, because it was not conducive to giving a lecture, and we started talking about American politics. And he ran back to strike headquarters. You know, “Waller’s teaching his class, we gotta do something.” So the whole crew comes charging down, they came barging into the classroom, with the [NFB] cameraman in tow, grinding away. They said “don’t you know that you’re not allowed to teach your class.” And I said “you can’t tell me not to teach my class. My students want to learn, I want to teach, that’s our business.” And then [PSA members] turned on the students, they put on the pressure, you know, “the collectivity has decided no classes, you can’t break the discipline of the collectivity.” Eventually they persuaded the students to leave. But they were putting very heavy pressure on them, which I would consider coercion. They harangued them, they browbeat them – I don’t think they used physical force, but there was an implicit threat of physical violence I would say. Eventually the students decided they weren’t going to turf it out.”

November 25, 1968: Faculty agree to cancel all classes. PSA gains support from other student groups and associations. Some anti-strike students try to attend class.

Students slept in sleeping bags on the floor of Leacock.

August: “You had two positions there. One was the students who wanted to go back to school. They said, “I want my education, I want to go to school, I want to take my class.” While the other side, including a person who voted against the strike, we all said the decision was made in a general assembly of the PSA – the PSA voted several times in favour of the strike, and that mandate has to be respected…Now, the individual students, the I-want-my-education types, in the spring 2012, as in the PSA strike 45 years ago…they were saying je, me, moi: me, myself, and I. It’s a very profound thing: whether you see society from the point of view of your own individual interests, or you see yourself as part of a society, as part of a movement that wants to improve the society. And that’s what hit me when I watched that movie 45 years later.”

November 27, 1968: Strike continues.

August: “[I said]: ‘No one’s gonna flunk: we’ll do our own papers, we’ll correct our own papers, our own exams.’ I was reacting to the faculty saying just before that, “If this thing goes on, you’re going to lose your session, and you’re going to lose everything.” When I said no one’s gonna flunk, if I remember correctly, there was a pretty strong round of applause. I think that was the main psychological, political obstacle that we overcame right at that moment, when we said, “No way, they’re not going to intimidate us into giving in.” That was the turning point.”

November 28, 1968: Professor John Shingler declares unequivocal support for the strike. “There comes a time,” he said, “when those who have substantial positions of authority in institutions yield only under pressure of political demands.”

August: “[Shingler] contacted us. He said, “Look, I agree with you, I’d like to explain my position at the PSA,” and we said sure. And that’s exactly what he did.”

Noumoff: “John Shingler had been president of the white South African union of students in South Africa. So he had been a student activist himself previously. He may have been tormented by it for a while, but I think he saw the historic writing was on the wall, and that it made sense to accommodate it.”

John Shingler, once anti-strike, dramatically announced his support for students at a PSA meeting on the fourth floor of Leacock. 

December 2, 1968: After three days without any negotiation, the occupation is one week old. The first round of student-faculty negotiations begin; they are filmed on CCTV for students to watch in the Adams auditorium. PSA demands one-third representation on departmental committees.

Harry Cowen, a student negotiator, calls the department “politically monolithic.”

“The arguments of the faculty are bankrupt and intellectually bankrupt,” said August. “Professor Nayar, your field is very important – political development – it encompasses a lot of people in the third world, and we know very well there are a lot of positions in the third world who are not of the orientation you have and the orientation you have in your reading list.”

Breecher denounced the students’ interrogation of professors’ political beliefs. “Those of us who have had the pleasure of living through the McCarthy era recall vividly the kind of television display in which individuals in universities were harangued but precisely for the opposite reason.”

August: “I asked the professors there, when we had that closed-circuit exchange, how come there’s no literature by Lenin in any of the books, when it could be interesting for students to hear what Lenin had to say about capitalism and imperialism. I was proud of myself when I saw that.”

Students watching PSA-faculty debate in what looks like the Adams auditorium. 

December 3, 1968: Round two of CCTV negotiations; faculty refuses to concede regarding hiring and firing. Breecher: “Is a first year medical student the equal of a doctor?” Cowen quotes T.S. Eliot and John Lennon.

Professor Nayar speaks against the idea of racially specific teachers for certain topics: “[Mr. Cowen] says if we’re going to talk about black power, we should get a black person to come talk to us. If somehow blood is necessary for the communication of ideas, if that is so, none of the people in our department, except perhaps for myself or Professor Mallory who teaches Canada, and I who teach Asian politics, would be qualified to teach here. Mr. Noumoff wouldn’t teach his East Asian group – you should get a Chinese to come and teach it that. Or if it goes further, with Mao’s philosophy, somebody from Hunan.”

Allan Stanovici (PSA exec): “We’re all pretty well white, middle-class people, all within a certain mould, we’re all individuals within this mould – it’s very free and egalitarian. But it’s all within a certain context: certain people will come from outside this mold and we see very quickly how quick the reaction forms, how quick the shell closes.”

August: “I would say that the professor who most antagonized the students was Breecher – Professor Breecher, Michael Breecher. He was quite arrogant and he was obviously trying to divide us. Harry Edel said he’s trying to divide us and we have to be careful.”

Left: Baldev Nayar, professor of Indian politics. Right: Arnold August, the Leninist PSA chairman. Nayar would become August’s Master’s supervisor. 

December 4, 1968: Students accept one third representation on curriculum and section committees, less than the parity they sought but a big improvement over the lack of representation they had before.

August: “[There] was jubilation, because it was rough, and everyone was wondering, how long can we keep it up? We played their bluff; we stuck to our position that we want to be on the committee. It’s quite possible that if we did not win it, the strike might have disintegrated. It’s quite possible.”

December 5, 1968: PSA votes to end strike after ten days – but not before it had made clear that its drive for parity is far from over. Strike officially ends at 2 p.m.

At the time, August said, “Victory for PSA. A turning point in the student movement at McGill.”

“Victory in that we weren’t totally defeated,” said Harry Edel.

August: “It wasn’t a celebratory party with beer or anything like that. It was handshakes, and hugging each other – “we won” and “classes are starting again.” It was relief that we won. If we wouldn’t have won, and been forced to go back to classes without that, it would have been very depressing. People were really tired – we hadn’t slept much, we had been occupying that place for a while. So we hugged, we were happy and all that, then people went home to try and recuperate physically.”

Noumoff: “It was a final vote within the Political Science faculty, with one vote against it, when it finally was resolved. And it was resolved primarily because one of the members of the department, who at that point was Associate Dean of the faculty, a man by the name of Saul Frankl – who was a labour negotiator – he came up with an argument that seemed to echo with many of the more conservative colleagues who didn’t want any change at all. Saul said, “Look, you know how bureaucracies work, and you know how systems work. We all know this as political scientists. Well, I can assure you, when we let the students in, they’ll get tired, they’ll get bureaucratized, they’ll be sucked in to the system, and they really won’t be too much of a threat.” And that seemed to work with what I would call the recalcitrant members of the department…While I didn’t welcome what Saul Frankl said, I believed he was right, as a lot of the history since then would demonstrate.”

Students vowed to keep fighting for parity as they accepted a compromise. In fact, student representation in Political Science remains largely unchanged from the settlement of 1968. 

Before they conceded, Harry Cowen delivered a speech to members of the PSA: “Once upon a time we would have been prepared to sit, like Estragon and Vladimir, on the cold moors of Leacock, waiting for Godot, listening in hope to the messenger who tells us that Godot will be coming not today, but tomorrow. But we are no Vladimir, we are no Estragon. We know that Godot never comes of his own accord, if at all.”


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