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‘You can’t just step on us’: Remembering the impact of the 1969 Sir George Williams protest

The veneer of an inclusive Canadian society came off 50 years ago when a protest brought racism in Montreal to the surface and prompted a national conversation.

Yvonne Greer was 20 when allegations of discrimination made by students against a professor at Sir George William University polarized the city.

An ensuing protest lasted 13 days — from Jan. 29, 1969, when students and activists occupied a university computer centre, until February 11, when a fire broke out, $2 million in damage was done and 97 people were arrested.

“People who were once friendly, or at least polite to black people, now came out and told anybody black: ‘Go back where you came from,'” Greer said.

At the centre of the protest were a group of Caribbean students who made the allegations.

The way the university handled the situation led to hundreds of students and activists occupying the university’s computer centre on the ninth floor of the Hall Building.

According to Greer, how the events unfolded “brought the black community to self-realization.”

“Fifty years ago many people didn’t know we were here — ‘Hey, hey, hey, we’re here, we’re people. You can’t just step on us!'” Greer said.

A community finds its voice

Rodney John comes from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and was one of the complainants — he found himself speaking to media a lot as the events unfolded.

He said it wasn’t uncommon to see his photo run alongside “a variation of what happened, the reporter just made the most interesting story that he could,” John said.

Rodney John was one of six black biology students who complained about the treatment received from a professor. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Unable to rely on mainstream media to properly cover what was happening, Greer became involved in a small newspaper called Uhuru, where members of the black community filled its pages with articles about the protest.

The protest also raised questions about who was going on to study at university, and who wasn’t.

“It became very clear that the vast majority of black students were not from Montreal,” Greer said.

She said the situation spotlighted that when black students in Montreal graduated from high school, they didn’t pursue higher education.

“Out of that, some educators in the community, which eventually became the Quebec Board of Black Educators, started to have summer schools for black students to help them to be able to get into university,” she said.

The Quebec Board of Black Educators is an NDG-based organization that today provides advocacy and research about education issues impacting the community. 

An ‘eye-opener’

Greer said that part of the protest’s legacy was “the consciousness-raising” it fostered in the city.

Recently retired senator Anne Cools agreed.

Cools had immigrated to Montreal from Barbados with her family and was a McGill student in the late 1960s.

“You know, I think in a way it was a great eye-opener for many,” she said.

“Some people have never given much thought to the realities of other people’s lives — what they live on a daily basis,” she said.

Greer said that following the protests, “there started to be other little community groups: The Côte-des-Neiges Black Community Centre, the South Shore Black Community Association and the NDG Black Community Association.”

A few years after the Sir George Williams protest, the university merged with Loyola College to create Concordia University in 1974.​

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