In honour of the lives affected by the Sir George Williams Affair

 

Legacy of the Hall Building

The Significance & Responsibility of this Space, Place and Time for Black Students and Montreal Black Communities


Commemoration:

to call to remembrance. a ceremony in which a person or event is remembered.

 

Remembrance:

the ability to remember and the period over which the remembering extends

 

Remember:

to recall to the mind. to remain aware of. to do something that one has undertaken or that is necessary to do.

mem mem memory.

 

Memory is what brings us here today.

Memory a noun so often confined to the past though without it we have no sense of now.  

No, I don’t mean now in our restricted unidirectional understanding of time but rather the now that is unique to each of you listening.  

A gathering of thoughts, teachings, privileges, barriers, experiences and blind spots that shape how you are receiving my words, reading this space, and recalling the Sir George Williams Affair. In being here today you have opened a point of access for memory and as collective we are transforming the memory of this space, place & time. As I’ve been honoured with the right to speak on this panel, I invite you to journey with me in an act of remembering the Sir George Williams Affair, not only in honour of lives affected by this charged moment in history but also as to invoke the pending responsibilities around this unresolved chapter in the legacy of the Hall building. That something necessary that still needs to be done.

 

Feel free to close your eyes as I paint this memoryscape.

 

The year is 1969. The building we’re in does not exist yet. At this level, we are underground, surrounded by land. Land we’re now beginning to acknowledge as Tio’tia:ke, another unresolved chapter, or rather volumes that are so deeply entwined with every story of this place yet we are still so resistant and awkward in our understanding, pronunciations, recognitions and restitutions. Ease your resistance; let the land, its stories, and its needs engulf you. Its knowledge and the guidance of its original custodians will teach us the way up. Nurture us beyond reconciliation into true transformation.   

Sprout, like a blade of grass we find our way up through the concrete path. Do you see the view? There it is. The Hall building. A brand spanking new quintessential 60s-style concrete cube-shaped high-rise. Home to the Sir George Williams University. Take a breath. Feel the air. Do you feel the weight? Do you smell the tension? That distinct smell that comes before a storm. That heavy weight of loaded weather ready to burst. This climate has been building for generations now but there something about this moment in time that urges for action. Every conversation, argument, incident, gathering has been building to this moment. For Black students this has been a particular time of awakening and action that is shaping great leaders, thinkers, writers and more. There have been speeches, congresses, manifestos, and many other styles of organizing that are sustaining their collective approach, urgency and resolve. Keep this in mind as we make our way to the 9th floor where things are buzzing. Student-Administration tensions, more specifically Black student – white administration tensions have been escalating over the last few months and a breaking point has been reached. Protest is needed. Led by a group of stirring, eloquent and disciplined Black student activists, hundreds of students – from a large spectrum of race, class & gender – pile in to occupy the computer center. This center not chosen out of thoughtless impulse but as a means of protection because it had become clear that administration would protect obsolete machinery before Black lives.  

Feel the space – energy is high as this dedicated group does their part in changing history.

Days pass. 

The demands of this peaceful protest are responded to with strategic dismissal and intentional incitement. What began as a sit-in has been warped into confinement by administrative silence and control. Young teenage and 20-something year old students, under the care of an educational institution are being held hostage by the manipulative leveraging of their resolve. I highlight their youth not to dismiss their brilliance, as we know their impact and significance will transcend their age, time and space. I highlight their youth because as a parent I feel deeply for the hundreds of families that did their utmost to send their young ones abroad to a university they entrusted to better the lives of their children. Yet through administrative silence and control these YOUNG students were left in confinement. for 13 days. 13 days.

In this blatant absence of care and consideration, the invisible barrier between Black students and Montreal’s Black community crumbles. Two worlds that didn’t often engage are now bound for better and for worst. At its worst, Black members of the community lose their jobs, are beaten and even further marginalized from the ripples of this protest. At its best the 9th floor becomes an extension of Black homes where food, water, clothing, and care are regularly sent to the protesters while the collective sense of urgency and resolve are returned to the community and catalyze the blossoming of widespread Black consciousness that had already been slowly budding.  

As each day passes, tensions rise, coalitions solidify, the veil of race relations in Canada, in Quebec, in Montreal, fall to the ground and the Hall building becomes the mecca where all this is to be resolved. Whether accidental, implanted, or intentional this friction would of always led to Fire.

 

Flames. Smoke. Locked doors. Get down to the ground. We need out now.

Chants rise in the distance: let the niggers burn let the NIGGERS BURN LET THE NIGGERS BURN  *[see footnote]

Greeted with brutal force and handcuffs, students are ‘rescued’ from the scene and brought to their next area of confinement: jail.

Administrative silence breaks. The beast has been contained. In an interview near by a faculty member now smugly replies ‘Well I suppose if we negotiate now it’ll be across bars.’

 

If your eyes were closed, I invite to gently make you way back to 2019. 50 years later.

 

As we commemorate the Sir George Williams affair I feel it’s important that I place my relationship with this space so as to preface my own sense of urgency and resolve. Unlike many of those who are passing through this city and/or university, I am a Black Montrealer (born, raised and rooted) I am 3-time Concordia graduate, and a 5-year employee of this institution.

 

I constantly engage with the Hall building.

It is the space in which I most acutely feel my Blackness on campus.

I remember vividly the premiere of the ninth floor film in 2015 where my beautiful community made it out to heal together. I’m talking aunties, uncles, activists, students, young ones and yes even my mama made it out. Yet after the film, we were hit with an announcement from Concordia faculty: “We will begin the question period in a moment. I inform you in advance that any questions around the subject and politics of this film will not be discussed. We are only discussing the aesthetics of the film”.

 

Till this day I can’t sit in the Hall auditorium without feeling my pulse rise with rage.

Till this day my heart skips a beat every time the elevator passes the ninth floor.

Till this day my mind regularly drifts to my conflicted feelings around the thousands of Black community and personal archives stored on the 10th floor.

 

I cannot escape the memories stored in the physicality of the Hall building but in many ways feel grateful for this ability to remember - that keeps my eyes sharp.

On a daily, I witness and experience how Black stories and trauma are co-opted, repackaged, resold, and ‘remembered’ at Concordia. I see in which convenient and strategic moments Black stories are heard, celebrated and awarded. I see when funding is allocated, where initiatives stem from, and who gets to participate. I see how Concordia benefits. What I don’t see however is what Concordia has done to address its unresolved responsibility to the Sir George Williams Affair nor any of its relations with Blackness, Black students and Black communities in Montreal. Any powerful initiative or project – this commemoration included – that seems to come out of this institution has been through the strategic and arduous labour of the members around and within the Concordia community who with minimal budget, resources and support, find radical ways to make this space more liveable while Concordia basks in the glory of this labour. The deception runs deep, yet here we are day in and day out participating in this space, place and time. Producing knowledge, organizing for justice and challenging the apathy.

When will Concordia drop the pleasantries and engage in true transformation?

When will it address and amend its own particular history of violence and oppression?

What permanent space does this story hold in the university?

Where is the plaque commemorating and acknowledging the wrongful criminalization, deportation, and displacement of the student protesters?

Where is the memorial for Coralee Hutchison, the young poet and student protester who passed from a brain blood clot shortly after enduring the severe police brutality?  

What steps has Concordia taken to make amends with the students and the families from the Sir George Williams affair?

When will Concordia release a public statement officially renaming the Computer Riots to the Sir George Williams Affair on all its platforms, in the media and in public memory?

Which awards or spaces bear the name of Coralee Hutchison, Kennedy Fredericks, Rosie Douglas or Valerie Belgrave?

Where is the formal apology to Montreal’s Black communities who suffered real and tangible repercussions from this affair?

What scholarships have been established to address the enduring under-serving of Black communities here at Concordia? 

When will Concordia pay fitting homage and create true avenues of Black priority access to the precious resources and archives that Montreal’s Black communities have entrusted to its libraries and centers?

When will Concordia establish its long overdue Black Studies Program?

When will Concordia hire Black, particularly Black Montreal rooted professors, such as Dr. Dorothy Williams who can adequately create and teach a specialized course on the local national and global impact of the Sir George Williams Affair?

 

When will Concordia remember – As in do what is necessary to be done.

_____________

© Annick (MF) Maugile Flavien 2019

Written for and presented at the Protest & Pedagogy conference and event series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Sir George Williams University Affair

Footnote:

* During the fire that erupted in the Hall Building computer centre, which trapped the students who were occupying the centre, there were white mobs outside Sir George University chanting ‘let the niggers burn’. These disturbing chants uncovered and highlighted the extent of racism in Quebec and in Canada. Audio documentation of the chants can be heard in Mina Shum’s documentary film The Ninth Floor and a more detailed account of the events can be found in a book edited by Dennis Forsythe called Let The Niggers Burn! The Sir George Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath which was published in 1971, two years after the occupation.

 
Annick MF