Remembering Concordia's Computer Riot

Written by Tableau D'Hôte Theatre

April 1968: A group of seven West Indian students in Zoology 431 at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University found that their professor, Perry Anderson, was racist in his grading. They reached this conclusion by allowing some of their classmates to copy their assignments to see how their professor would grade the same paper if it was submitted by a white student. They determined that white students received higher marks, while West Indian students got barely passing grades.

Those students decided to approach the administration with their claims, presenting 13 grievances, of which 3 were inherently racial in nature. The administration appeared to listen attentively, promising to get back to them with a response. They never did.

The students left for the summer but later returned to school to discover that not only was Perry Anderson still teaching, but that he had been promoted to assistant professor. Upset by the administration’s lack of communication and greatly concerned about their grades and future, they pressured the administration to reconsider its decision. In November, almost seven months after the initial complaint was made, the Administration agreed to take another look at their case.

A short time later, it was reported that “black students” had burst into the principal’s office demanding Anderson’s immediate dismissal. After a long exchange, the students and administration agreed to a five-person committee with a diverse makeup. As a condition of holding a new committee hearing, the administration requested that students formalize their demands in writing. To this end, the students laid out a single written word that was fully charged against Anderson, the administration, and the school: racism. Professor Andersons then requested a leave of absence. The university obliged.

Tensions quickly escalated after a senior administrator wrote a letter to Anderson insisting he should remain on leave, since there would be a “risk of violence” should he return. The students confronted the administrator in his office over his choice of words, and were later charged with kidnapping.

After the committee agreed upon by the students and the administration fell apart, the university unilaterally decided upon a new composition for the committee, prompting the students to denounce it as illegal and illegitimate.

Fueled by profound indignation over the administration’s bungling of the file and the criminal charges against three of their classmates, the students disrupted the committee and launched an occupation of the university’s computer centre.

Hundreds of students participated in the two-week occupation, as organizers carried out negotiations with administrators. Riot police were called in when an agreement to end the occupation fell through resulting in widespread damage, a suspiciously set fire, and nearly 100 arrests.

The Sir George Williams computer protests are widely considered a defining moment in Canadian race relations, were an important precursor to Canada’s 1971 multiculturalism policy, and inspired university administrations to establish ombudsman offices to allow them to handle student grievances against faculty in a juster manner.