By Camille Robert
Translated by Thomas Peace
In many way, the image of Montreal in the 1960s is defined by the 1967 World’s Fair. Often celebrated as one of the key moments in the Quiet Revolution, official imagery of the city situated it as a centre-point in a modernized and globalized world. This rosy summertime image, however, is snowed over when we consider Montreal’s immigrant population and their direct relationships to the colonial processes that underlay Expo ’67.
This is the subject of Mina Shum’s The Ninth Floor. Focusing on the key leaders in the “Sir George Williams Affair,” Shum’s film argues that while Expo ’67 might have been a pivotal moment warmly caressing the city’s official self-image, the occupation of the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall building at Sir George Williams University (today Concordia University) exposed a colder reality, marking an important moment in the history of Montreal’s Black Power movement.
Through archival images and interviews with participants in the affair, The Ninth Floor retraces the steps that led dozens of students to occupy the university’s computer centre. The affair began in 1968 when six students from the Antilles filed a complaint about the racist behaviour of their biology professor, who had been giving Black students lower grades. Unless they passed this course, the students would have been unable to enter the Faculty of Medicine. After nearly a year of administrative inaction, tensions over the case had risen to a point of no return. After an unsuccessful hearing in January 1969, about two hundred people occupied the computer centre. Their efforts met with little success; the university refused to listen to their demands.
It was another two weeks before the riot squad was sent in to dismantle the occupation. Under siege, the students blocked the exits and threw the computer centre’s equipment and records out the window. A fire broke out while the students were still barricaded in the building. In the end, almost one hundred people were arrested, with a number facing serious criminal charge. Roosevelt Douglas, considered one of the ringleaders, was sentenced to two years in prison before being deported to his home in Dominica in 1975. Anne Cools, another participant, spent four months behind bars.
Through its use of contemporary video footage, The Ninth Floor tells aspects of this story little-known in contemporary Quebec. From their initial occupation until their brutal removal, the film retrieves moments of important deliberation and discussion behind the blockade. Importantly, this footage provides critical insight into the occupation, particularly as it relates to the presence of agent-provocateurs and the setting of the fire, an event that until this film has often been attributed to the occupiers.
Though the occupation came to a spectacular end, Shum does not make it the focus of the film. Bringing together personal stories and historical context she sets the stage by retracing the events leading up to the occupation’s final episode. The hostile and racist environment that many of the Antillean students felt upon their arrival in Montreal underpins the narrative. The film juxtaposes these experiences throughout the documentary with the democratic images and values conveyed during Expo ’67. In doing so, Shum uses the way these people were racialized during their time in Montreal to paint a very different picture of the city. Certainly, at Sir George Williams University, these students faced an institutionalize racism, but on the streets of Montreal, a more vulgar racism persisted; while the ninth floor burned, someone could be heard yelling “burn niggers burn!” Taken together, the film demonstrates that the George Williams Affair was far less a conflict between students and their professor and much more about the deep-seated racism that permeated the university and city’s culture. The opening of the city to the world in 1967 then was merely a door briefly left ajar; a simple glimpse at summer amid a landscape of snow.
For many of the participants in the affair, the Quebec of the late-1960s was a cold and foreboding place. Through interviews with a West Indian student and the daughter of one of the occupiers, the film extends this perspective to reflect on contemporary racism in Quebec. We see here an echo of recent debates about welcoming refugees and the relatively constant deportation of asylum seekers. Likewise, we might also point to continuing discussions about the legitimacy of certain tactics used by social movements that are systematically presented as ‘violent’ or ‘radical’ by corporate media. In the end, The Ninth Floor requires us to remember and admit that our history is not devoid of racism. It is time to move beyond the myth of Les Nègres blancs d’Amérique, which claimed for White Quebecers the image of a colonized people.
This work remains to be done. In The Empire Within, Sean Mills makes it clear that the George Williams Affair has seldom resonated with historians beyond the community of Black Montrealers:
The Sir George Williams Affair has generally been left out of narratives chronicling political developments in Montreal during the 1960s. It has been seen as either an aberration or, at best, a matter of secondary importance to the struggle between two linguistic groups. When it is remembered, it is generally portrayed as an event having relevance only for Black Canadians, and as a conflict that had little impact outside of the circles of Black Montreal. (105)
Camille Robert is an MA student in the history program at the Université du Québec à Montréal and a research assistant in the Centre d’histoire des régulations sociales (CHRS).