Forty years after the largest student riot in Canadian history, members of Concordia’s Rad School and the Alfie Roberts Institute led a discussion Thursday afternoon at Concordia’s School of Community and Public Affairs on the legacy of the Anderson Affair, a series of events which took place at Sir George Williams University (SGWU) – today part of Concordia – in early 1969.
During the Anderson Affair, hundreds of students occupied the ninth floor computer lab of the Henry F. Hall Building in protest of a professor who consistently gave lower marks to black students.
However, by the end of the sit-in on February 11, students had destroyed much of SGWU’s computer lab, set fires to the building, rioted in the streets, and caused over two million dollars worth of damage.
David Austin – a trustee of the Alfie Roberts Institute and the event’s coordinator – commented that the civil rights movement of the sixties is too often associated exclusively with the United States. He felt the Anderson Affair speaks to the parallels between Canadian and American society at the time.
“The [Anderson Affair] generally gets reduced to the smashing of computers, the fire and the rioting, and it’s [important to] situate it in the broader historical context of the sixties,” he said.
Austin added that the sit-in set an important precedent for activism within Montreal’s black community, but was also seen as a source of inspiration for other political movements.
“It made the wider Quebecois society more aware of the status of blacks in Quebec – especially the separatist left, which was drawing a lot of inspiration from the Black Power movement in the States at that time…so it had ripple effects way beyond the black community in Montreal,” he said.
Tensions between the university’s administration and students began heating up in April 1968, when four Caribbean students filed a complaint that one of their professors, Perry Anderson, was racist and that their marks were being adversely affected as a result.
The administration exonerated Anderson of the accusations, but after several months of unrest on the university’s campus, a hearing committee was established to address the students’ concerns.
Student leaders eventually rejected the hearings as a kangaroo court, and in January 1969, 400 students occupied the university’s computer lab. Others later took control of the faculty lounge on the building’s seventh floor. Two weeks later, violence erupted when the police moved into the building to end the sit-in. Ninety-seven students were arrested, 47 of whom were black.
Yvonne Greer, who was living in Montreal at the time, knew a number of people involved in the sit-in. She said that the Anderson Affair represents a major watershed in the history of black Canadians.
“There are a lot of people who now are black and they’re proud, whereas beforehand they would have been black and afraid,” Greer said.
“People perceived black activism as a purely American thing, even in the sixties, because we were so very invisible…and I think our faces became visible after that,” Greer added. “There is a very distinct pre- and post-1969, and a lot of the black groups in Montreal were formed directly or indirectly as a result of [the Anderson Affair].”
Austin stated that Concordia still has not reconciled with the history of racism at the university, and pointed to the fact that Anderson continued teaching after the Affair, eventually gaining tenure.
He also pointed to the story of Rosie Douglas, a Dominican student who was studying at McGill in the sixties and was one of the central leaders of the sit-in at SGWU. Douglas went on to become the Prime Minister of Dominica in 2000, but when he visited Concordia later that year for a dinner being held in his honour, the administration refused to attend.