Telling Stories of Montreal 1969: The Sir George Williams Affair and the Caribbean

By Ronald Cummings

Ronald Cummings teaches Caribbean literature

 in the Department of English at B

rock University, Canada.

On March 15, 1969 an editorial appeared in the short-lived Jamaican weekly newspaper Abeng, titled “Canada’s White Lies”. The editorial reflected on the events of the previous month in Canada, centring its consideration on what has become known as the Sir George Williams Affair. Only one month earlier, on February 11, 1969, nearly 100 protestors at the Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) had been arrested (including Joey Jagan, son of Cheddi Jagan) when riot police stormed the university’s computer centre that the students had been occupying for about two weeks. The students were protesting the University’s failure to meaningfully acknowledge and address their concerns and experiences of racism on campus.

Situating that event within the wider context of regional geo-politics, history and Caribbean-Canadian relations, the March 15 Abeng editorial opened by foregrounding questions of hospitality, which were no doubt meant to resonate with, as well as raise meaningful questions about, the well reputed ethos of Canadian civility. Indeed, as many have noted, it was that very narrative of Canadian politeness and welcome (unlike the reputation of their American neighbours to the south) that had attracted many of the students, who were now protesting their experiences of racism in Montreal, to come to Canada.

The news of the events of February 1969, the reports of racism and the accounts of mass arrests sent ripples throughout the region that raised serious questions and concerns from those back home. In Trinidad, headlines and protests in the months following the arrest of the West Indians in Montreal called for the intervention of the then Prime Minister Eric Williams. On March 14, 1969, the Trinidad Express carried the headline “Govt are paying fines promptly, says Dr. Williams” indicating the government’s intervention on behalf of those who were given fines, relating to the protests, amounting to $67,000.

These conversations within the region raise several questions about the need to remember and engage with the “Sir George Williams Affair” on different scales and through different perspectives. A recent post on the facebook page of the Protest and Pedagogy conference, being convened to mark the 50th anniversary of February 1969, raised the need to remember the question of scale in engaging this history and discussing the impact of the events: “What does it mean to position this moment at different scales? The university (racist pedagogy), the city of Montreal (policing & surveillance), the Canadian state (immigration/ deportation), and last but not least — the global connectivity of Black resistance?” The interventions in local space of Trinidad additionally demand that we think of this in diplomatic terms and in relation to the context of the new found, hard won sovereignty of the decade of the 1960s in several Caribbean territories.

While the impact and the debates in Trinidad have been revisited, for instance in the work of scholars and writers like Selwyn Ryan and Valerie Belgrave, the March 15 Abeng editorial also asks us to think about this in the wider context of the Caribbean and offers a glimpse of some of the debates, comments and discussions that were happening in Jamaica, for example, at the time. Additionally, it also raises questions for me about how the retelling of February 1969 might demand that we engage with different modes and registers of Caribbean storytelling as a part of making and recalling this history. The opening lines of the editorial capture both the seriousness and importance of the event and foreground key questions of sovereignty and international relations. However, it also, at the same time, offers some noteworthy tongue-in-cheek humour as part of the account in much the same way that we note how this very register of serious humour and back talk is signalled in the editorial’s title.

 West Indian students in Montréal have been  discriminated against, brutalized, arrested and  are now on trial. The Canadian Governor General has come and was showered with hos   pitality. The largest Canadian warship-The Provider-called here last week on a Caribbean cruise. And 850 Canadian troops are “exercis                      ing” in the John Crow Mountains and in the  Cockpit country so as to “get accustomed to tropical conditions”.

In addition to the obvious comments about hospitality and the noting of the militarization of the Canadian state through the presence of a Canadian warship on a “Caribbean cruise” (which, in turn, becomes linked to the surveillance policing of Caribbean bodies in the Montreal), in reading this account, one can hardly miss the sly critique of the Canadian immigration policy which prior to the period of the 1960s excluded Black and Caribbean peoples on the premise that they were not exactly suited to the climate of Canada. In asking whether the Canadians troops in Jamaica were there “to get accustomed to tropical conditions”, the editorial ironically recalls this history of exclusion but also

references the history of Canadian involvement in the Caribbean that one can trace through institutions of banking and bauxite, for instance.

However, beyond this bit of humour, serious questions were being raised. The editorial went on to more explicitly spell out some of its concerns through a series of questions, a few of which I quote here, not least of all because it is also undoubtedly offers a good bit of picong or perhaps mamaguy.

Did they send their biggest warship at this time to intimidate black people in the West Indies? Are the troops in Portland and the Cockpit studying the terrain to prepare to move in if Canadian bauxite, banks etc. were to come under attack? No part of Canada is tropical. So what are they preparing for?

Beyond the mere content of the questions here, it is also worth noting the very turn to questioning as an intervention in the history of the Sir George Williams affair. Indeed one might argue that in turning to the history of this event today, even fifty years later, it is still hard to definitively narrate the details of February 1969. By saying this, firstly I mean to underscore how the painful wounds of that event still fester long after the moment has passed. To watch documentary films (such as Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor or Imara Ajani Rolston’s An(other) Antilles) or to read narrative accounts, which attempt to construct and retell the story, and moreso to talk to those who were there, is to come face to face with the emotional and political urgency of that moment as a present encounter. Indeed there hasn’t been healing, in part, because there also hasn’t been reparations. The unequal relationships and the racial injustices that were being critiqued by the students in Canada, as well as others in the region, still persist today in different ways. But my assertion that it is hard to definitively tell this story is also meant in a second sense. The details evade easy capture. They are obscure, even as the moral certainty of the protestors is hard to deny.

One of the subheadings of the editorial is phrased “What Really Happened in Montreal”. There was no question mark placed at the end of this phrase, but it still rings as a question as one reads the article. The tension between certainty and doubt is reflected, for instance, in the editorial claim that “One thing is clear, it is that we have not been told the full story of what actually happened in the period before the trial began”. They additionally note that “the so called destruction of property” with which the protestors were charged “may not have been done by them at all”. One might sum up the range of these questions to say that one thing is clear, nothing is fully clear in this matter except that the institutional processes that should have provided clarity and some measure of redress, mediation and hearing at the level of the university and of the state, were clearly weighted against the students and protestors.

Over the last few months I have been participating with other colleagues, most notably my colleagues of Guyanese descent in Montreal, Nalini Mohabir and Kaie Kellough, in co-organizing a conference and a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the student occupations and protests in Montreal. We have had meaningful conversations with several people of the generation of the 1960s who were involved in the events of February 1969 as well as several of our own friends, who have in several instances, remarked that they had family who were there. Usually the story goes they had an uncle who was there. Revolution is always gendered and more research still needs to be done on the role of women in protests and civil disobedience in the Caribbean and its diaspora. The levels of involvement that they recount are varied. In trying to piece together any kind of picture of what happened in Montreal 1969, one soon notes how widespread and wide ranging the impact of the Sir George Williams affair was as well as its broad historical trajectory and connections, linking it for instance to the Congress of Black Writers which happened in Montreal, the year before, in 1968. The stories that are told, and that are still to be told, are multiple and varied and the telling of them will undoubtedly perform and engage some of the Caribbean pathos, humour and seriousness that we see for instance in the Abeng editorial from years ago.

On February 8 and 9th 2019, a range of scholars, activists and community members of different generations will gather at the place where it all happened, in Montreal, to reflect on the events of 1969. A two day conference titled “Protests and Pedagogy: The legacies of Caribbean student resistance and the Sir George Williams Affair, Montréal, 1969 has been planned for February 8 and 9th 2019. It will include some of the original protestors telling their stories as well as a series of panels and discussions reflecting on the effects and legacies of the protests. Notable among the themes the conference will explore is the need to still work towards decolonizing our universities and institutions. Additionally there will also be a series of films, lectures, artist workshops, an exhibition and round table discussions. These have been scheduled over two weeks to reflect the two-week span of time of the 1969 protests. The aim of this all is to remember and reflect, not necessarily to produce a definitive history of that moment, since we all know that West Indian narratives refuse fixity of details, resonance and meaning. Rather, we want to facilitate a space where this story can be retold and reflected on and the significance of the sacrifices and protests of the students in 1969 can be remembered and re-engaged in the context of our current historical moment. references the history of Canadian involvement in the Caribbean that one can trace through institutions of banking and bauxite, for instance.

However, beyond this bit of humour, serious questions were being raised. The editorial went on to more explicitly spell out some of its concerns through a series of questions, a few of which I quote here, not least of all because it is also undoubtedly offers a good bit of picong or perhaps mamaguy.

 Did they send their biggest warship at this time to intimidate black people in  the West Indies? Are the troops in Portland and the Cockpit studying the terrain  to prepare to move in if Canadian bauxite, banks etc. were to come under  attack? No part of Canada is tropical. So what are they preparing for?

Beyond the mere content of the questions here, it is also worth noting the very turn to questioning as an intervention in the history of the Sir George Williams affair. Indeed one might argue that in turning to the history of this event today, even fifty years later, it is still hard to definitively narrate the details of February 1969. By saying this, firstly I mean to underscore how the painful wounds of that event still fester long after the moment has passed. To watch documentary films (such as Mina Shum’s Ninth Floor or Imara Ajani Rolston’s An(other) Antilles) or to read narrative accounts, which attempt to construct and retell the story, and moreso to talk to those who were there, is to come face to face with the emotional and political urgency of that moment as a present encounter. Indeed there hasn’t been healing, in part, because there also hasn’t been reparations. The unequal relationships and the racial injustices that were being critiqued by the students in Canada, as well as others in the region, still persist today in different ways. But my assertion that it is hard to definitively tell this story is also meant in a second sense. The details evade easy capture. They are obscure, even as the moral certainty of the protestors is hard to deny.

One of the subheadings of the editorial is phrased “What Really Happened in Montreal”. There was no question mark placed at the end of this phrase, but it still rings as a question as one reads the article. The tension between certainty and doubt is reflected, for instance, in the editorial claim that “One thing is clear, it is that we have not been told the full story of what actually happened in the period before the trial began”. They additionally note that “the so called destruction of property” with which the protestors were charged “may not have been done by them at all”. One might sum up the range of these questions to say that one thing is clear, nothing is fully clear in this matter except that the institutional processes that should have provided clarity and some measure of redress, mediation and hearing at the level of the university and of the state, were clearly weighted against the students and protestors.

Over the last few months I have been participating with other colleagues, most notably my colleagues of Guyanese descent in Montreal, Nalini Mohabir and Kaie Kellough, in co-organizing a conference and a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of the student occupations and protests in Montreal. We have had meaningful conversations with several people of the generation of the 1960s who were involved in the events of February 1969 as well as several of our own friends, who have in several instances, remarked that they had family who were there. Usually the story goes they had an uncle who was there. Revolution is always gendered and more research still needs to be done on the role of women in protests and civil disobedience in the Caribbean and its diaspora. The levels of involvement that they recount are varied. In trying to piece together any kind of picture of what happened in Montreal 1969, one soon notes how widespread and wide ranging the impact of the Sir George Williams affair was as well as its broad historical trajectory and connections, linking it for instance to the Congress of Black Writers which happened in Montreal, the year before, in 1968. The stories that are told, and that are still to be told, are multiple and varied and the telling of them will undoubtedly perform and engage some of the Caribbean pathos, humour and seriousness that we see for instance in the Abeng editorial from years ago.

On February 8 and 9th 2019, a range of scholars, activists and community members of different generations will gather at the place where it all happened, in Montreal, to reflect on the events of 1969. A two day conference titled “Protests and Pedagogy: The legacies of Caribbean student resistance and the Sir George Williams Affair, Montréal, 1969 has been planned for February 8 and 9th 2019. It will include some of the original protestors telling their stories as well as a series of panels and discussions reflecting on the effects and legacies of the protests. Notable among the themes the conference will explore is the need to still work towards decolonizing our universities and institutions. Additionally there will also be a series of films, lectures, artist workshops, an exhibition and round table discussions. These have been scheduled over two weeks to reflect the two-week span of time of the 1969 protests. The aim of this all is to remember and reflect, not necessarily to produce a definitive history of that moment, since we all know that West Indian narratives refuse fixity of details, resonance and meaning. Rather, we want to facilitate a space where this story can be retold and reflected on and the significance of the sacrifices and protests of the students in 1969 can be remembered and re-engaged in the context of our current historical moment.

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