Sir George Williams Riot


Image: Aftermath of the largest student uprising in Canadian history (courtesy Concordia University Archives)


In the spring of 1968, six Black Caribbean students at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University, Montreal) accused a biology lecturer of racism. They complained that the teacher was handing out failing grades to all his Black students, regardless of the quality of their work. The students wanted the university to set up a committee to investigate the charges and they demanded that the students themselves be represented on the committee.

The university agreed to form the committee, but the students were unhappy with the representatives, believing that they would not get a fair hearing. They organized sit-ins and distributed leaflets publicizing their protest.

When the committee dismissed the complaint of racism, on January 29, 1969 all of the complainants as well as about 200 other students walked out of the hearings in protest and occupied the Computer Centre in the Henry F. Hall Building.

The "sit-in" continued until February 10, when representatives from both sides appeared to have negotiated a settlement. The administration agreed to set up a new committee if the students would end the occupation. About a hundred students were left in the building later that night, when the whole agreement fell apart at the last minute. The protesters barricaded the stairwells and shut off the elevators and telephones. The university then turned the whole matter over to the police.

When the police arrived on February 11, the peaceful sit-in exploded into a full-scale student riot, the most violent in Canadian history. The protesters threw the computers out the windows, wrecked property, set fires and destroyed student records. The police arrested 97 people, White as well as Black. On the following day the accused biology teacher was reinstated and the committee dropped the complaint of racism against him.

What happened to the student protesters? Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas, a McGill graduate, was labeled the ringleader and served two years in prison. He was deported back to his homeland Dominica in 1975. Another participant, Anne Cools, originally from the Island of Barbados, was sentenced to four months in prison but was later pardoned. She moved to Toronto in 1974 and founded Women In Transition Inc, one of the first shelters for abused and battered women in the country. Later she became the first Black person to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

The events that led to what is now known as the Sir George Williams Riot forced university administrators to re-evaluate how they deal with complaints of racism. In 1971 the administration adopted a new set of regulations and rights. Students finally became part of the university's decision-making process, and the ombudsman's office was created to hear students' concerns.

In his speech on his return to Montreal in 2000 Roosevelt Douglas summed up the affair this way: "It was a fight for Black people to have an equal stake in the nation. We had no malice in our heads—we just wanted justice."

The Computer Centre Incident
An article about the 1969 riot at Sir George Williams Univeristy (a precursor to today's Concordia University) which started with a student protest against a professor accused of racism. From the Concordia University website.

Rosie the Red Takes Power
This 2000 profile of Rosie Douglas, the Prime Minister of Dominica, includes references to his role in the “computer riot” at Sir George Williams University. From Saturday Night magazine.

Ann Cools
Brief note about the life and career of Ann Cools from the Black communities in Canada website.

The Computer Riot: The Day the Georgian went black
An account of the "Computer Riot" at Sir George Williams University. From the Some Missing Pages website.