Ninth Floor: Revisiting the Computer Riots, Montreal 1969
On the occasion of the theatrical run of a new NFB documentary film, Ninth Floor , Archive Montreal digitized a number of student newspapers and images from its archives published during the infamous Computer Riots (otherwise widely known in its era as the Sir George Williams Affair), which played out in January and February 1969 at what is now the Hall Building of Concordia University in downtown Montreal.
The film was premiered in September 2015, and includes recently unearthed student videotape footage of protest leaders and the various occupations that occurred during the crisis. It is high time that this important chapter in local and Canadian history gets wider exposure. The shock waves stemming from the incident rippled across Canadian universities, forcing them all the reconsider whether their entrenched culture and ways of doing things were out of step with a rapidly evolving modern world. Although the casual acceptance of racism among the ranks of faculty was the core issue, the mishandling of the affair by the University and the forces of law and order was a major factor in the unfortunate sequence of events. In short, the old rigid, mainly white Anglo-Saxon institutions, such as Sir George University, by the late 1960s, had still not understood that times were changing; that students needed to be involved in the evolution of University policies and problem-solving; that it was no longer the staid white conservative 1950s Canada anymore.
One of the premiere screenings of the film Ninth Floor was held in early September 2015 in the Hall Building itself. It was attended by many of the subjects, including the longtime Canadian senator Anne Cools — who had been arrested during the Computer Riots- and many others that had been there. In an extensive question and answer session after the screening, the issue of whether the University had truly learned its lessons in 1969 was raised, with various periods of unrest at Concordia such as during the early 2000s or during the 2012 Printemps Érable brought up as examples. The filmmakers replied that for the purposes of their film, at least, the University was very open and willing to provide access to any and all archival materials, no questions asked. Archive Montreal can attest to this openness, having received permission from the University to re-print our copies of student newspapers from that era on this website.
It can certainly be debated as to whether Concordia or other local Universities are truly as inclusive of students or marginalized communities in their decision-making as they should be, and the question of whether Universities manage demonstrations and protests properly is still very debatable. But as an important chapter in our history, it is hard to deny the importance that the Computer Riots still have and how pertinent its many lessons are both to Universities as well as to teachers, students and protesters of all kinds today. Just the coverage of the film’s release in reviews here and here has done a lot to raise the awareness of the affair and its ongoing pertinence.
We spoke to several individuals for Montreal Underground Origins who attended Sir George University during the crisis or had a role in it in some way.
Veteran Montreal poet Endré Farkas, a Sir George Williams University student during the crisis, related his experience in an interview posted elsewhere on this site.
EF: I was part of the occupation. There were two kinds of occupations… The first was the black students’ who took over the computer floor, and maybe a week later, the white students took over the cafeteria in support. We also took over the teacher’s faculty lounge– that’s when the teachers turned against us, when they couldn’t get to their booze. So I was part of that second occupation– I mean, just as a body, I wasn’t part of the leadership.
LR: And how did that work? Did you actually have to stay there overnight a certain number of days?
EF: Yeah, we settled in, we brought our sleeping bags,
LR: And runners go to get food?
EF: Well, we took over the cafeteria, so we supplied food [to the various occupations], but there was flexibility in coming and going. It was only towards the last couple of nights, when there were rumours of the cops coming, that the coming and going was controlled.
LR: So they didn’t have the riot squads out back then? Like for the Printemps Érable student movement in 2012?
EF: Oh, no. They were regular cops and nobody ever, in Canada, experienced that kind of problem before. From what I remember, we kept hearing different rumours that there was a compromise where the failed students were going to be allowed to take the tests again.
LR: That was the deal to settle the complaint about the professor failing all the black students and the review board backing up the teacher.
EF: Yes. And then the cops started to come in just as we assumed that it was over, that it was negotiated. Then the black students started throwing things out of the computer centre windows: not so much the computers but the punch cards—these held people’s PhD’s, you know. That’s when you could hear from downstairs other students yelling, “Kill the niggers!”
LR: So there was a counter protest? Much like it is today; a core of students that just want to study and not deal with politics.
EF: Yes, and don’t interfere with my right for an education even if it means that I may have to pay more for it. It usually broke along the lines of political science, philosophy and English majors to the left, and economics, business and engineering to the right. That hasn’t changed much.. the night before [the police raid] I went home because I wasn’t feeling well, and next night the cops raided it. So I never got busted …
LR: Did any of your friends get arrested?
EF: Yeah, but it was mainly the black students who got arrested, the whites were let off with a warning or a fine. Black students got put into jail. I think we were unique in the sense that it was the first such crisis outside of the U.S.
Nancy Marrelli, longtime Director of Archives at Concordia and co-owner of Montreal’s Véhicule Press, was a Sir George Williams University graduate working at the University during the crisis.
LR: Am I wrong in presuming this [POINTS TO “THE PAPER” STUDENT NEWSPAPER] was a bit more of a conservative student paper…
NM: (laughs) That’s the under-statement of the year!! (laughs) The paper was—yes—very, very conservative!
LR: Did you take part in the occupation?
NM: No I didn’t. But the guy I was living with at the time was in the computer centre and just left before things blew up, just accidentally.
LR: Were you relieved that he wasn’t there?
NM: There was no question of relief at that time. It was just plain horrific from beginning to end… I think it’s awful that the police were called in in the first place… It’s totally, totally unclear—to this day, I think—whether the fire started before the police were called or after the police were called. I don’t think anybody really knows, even the people who were there. It never should have happened—the whole thing—never should have happened! The procedures within the University were completely inappropriate and incapable of handling things properly, and things just spun out of control because there was no decent way of appealing decisions. But there is no question that the incident changed the way things were dealt with internally at Sir George Williams University. It changed [the policies surrounding] access to documents, it changed all kinds of things for the better.
LR: I guess it’s a shame that it had to end so dramatically, and perhaps we’ll never know whether the changes would have been as deep and enacted as quickly if it hadn’t ended that dramatically.
NM: Absolutely not. I honestly don’t know that there was much of any possibility of it ending peacefully once it had begun.
Ann Diamond is a longtime Montreal author who, as Anne McLean, was news editor at the Georgian student newspaper from 1968 until the early 1970s.
AD: I arrived as an undergraduate in September 1968, and joined the Georgian staff soon afterwards. I was present on campus through the events leading up to the occupation, and its aftermath, but as a 17 year old girl, I was in no way a player.
LR: You are listed as News Editor in the issues covering the crisis itself.
AD: Victor Lehotay basically took over editing the Georgian during the crisis. He was older than the rest of us — possibly mid to late 20s, or at least he appeared older. He turned out a series of articles criticizing the administration. I think (Editor-in-Chief) Dave Bowman often felt overwhelmed — but I remember his editorial, which established the Georgian’s position in support of the black students and the occupation.
That started the ball rolling towards confrontation — and as I mentioned earlier, I was a neophyte who mainly just observed events as they unfolded. I think we all felt caught up in something that was both exciting, and out of our control. The Georgian office at that time was a real hub, with people coming and going — all sorts of people, including Mark Medicoff. Lehotay would come in, shut himself in Bowman’s office, and turn out another editorial (or diatribe). I think David Bowman was unfairly pilloried — he was a good, honest guy in my opinion — but lost control of a situation that was uncontrollable.
Another vocal radical in those days was Murray Smith, who used to harangue students from a microphone on the Mezzanine. He never wrote anything that I can remember. He is unfortunately now a homeless person hanging out in Guy Metro.
Generally, there was just a feeling of a collective movement that was headed somewhere, as we thought at the time — there were protest leaders, movers and shakers, people who held the spotlight — and there was the opposition, who eventually took back control. Most people were observers, swept along in the current, and learning daily lessons about politics and poltiical behaviour.
My current attitude is: events like the Computer Centre Crisis are often manipulated, in various ways, by various groups and players. On the other hand, we were all genuinely concerned about racism and we wanted the students to get a fair hearing. It was hard, from my perspective, to distinguish between real racism and the complex emotions and hidden politics, which led to polarization on both sides. Did someone really yell “Let the niggers burn?” I don’t know, as I didn’t hear it — but it’s very possible someone did, and others joined in. In the street that day, I can’t remember what people were chanting, possibly some slogan like “The whole world’s watching” — there was real fear and anger against the riot cops.
A few years ago I met a woman whose name I forget who was one of the 97 arrested students. She told me she had a very bad experience that day: the cops were brutal, the administration were liars, the fire was set by provocateurs, and she felt there was major deception about the way the students were treated afterwards,
I partly agree, but it happened very fast. And then it was over, and there were great efforts to sweep everything back into the closet, particularly the wrongdoing by the administration.
Georgian reporter Don McKay was arrested and tried, years later, for mischief. His defence lawyer was the famous and much-respected Bernard Mergler. I was called as a witness, and our strategy was for me to say that as News Editor, I had assigned Don to cover the computer centre story, which was why he joined the occupation. This, I must admit, was stretching the truth — Don joined because he supported the cause of the black students. My testimony was totally shredded by the brilliant but sleazy William (?) Shadley who terrorized me on the witness stand, and convinced the judge that I was just another casualty of the sixties (like the judge’s own daughter, as Mergler explained to me later…) I think in the end, though, Don was acquitted, or received a suspended sentence.
That courtroom experience underlined (again) how disorganized the Georgian really was, in that nobody was really formally assigned to cover the occupation. There was no strategy. All we did, as I remember, was offer editorial or moral support in a situation that turned into stalemate and ended in violence.
In retrospect, I don’t know how we should have dealt with it, as student journalists. There was no time to come up with a real strategy, and the race issue made it even harder — the black student leaders were not necessarily ready to give interviews or offer soundbites. Neither side was talking openly.
Don’t forget to check out the student newspapers of the time yourself on our Image blog here, as well as a gallery of photos extracted from these newspapers of the aftermath of the riots.