More than four decades ago at Montreal’s Sir George Williams University, a protest against the administration’s handling of a racial discrimination complaint prompted one of the biggest campus occupations in Canadian history.
In 1969, students staged a 14-day sit-in of the university’s ninth floor computer room after a racial bias complaint against a professor was dismissed. The occupation ended when a fire broke out and the mainly black students were herded out by police. Onlookers on the street reportedly shouted “Let the n%*$#rs die” as the fire burned. The cause of the fire remains unknown. In the end, almost 100 students were charged with various offences, and many were jailed.
These events have poignantly resurfaced in a new documentary called Ninth Floor, one of the Toronto International Film Festival’s top 10 Canadian films of 2015.
“As a Chinese Canadian woman, I navigate the world experiencing racism, always questioning how to confront it directly in my own life,” said Mina Shum, the film’s director. “This is what compelled me to examine this story.”
Shum was captivated by the actions of the black students in confronting racism on campus. In her view, the administration excluded and negated the experiences of the students, creating an “atmosphere of fear.”
“I think there is a lot of fear still today,” Shum says. “Fear is the currency of power. We see it in how riot police have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Shortly after the incident, Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) implemented a policy for addressing complaints of racism and created an ombuds office.
Today, Canadian campuses have adopted equity policies, set up human rights offices, and provided other resources aimed at ending racism and discrimination.
But new research shows there is a long way to go.
Queen’s University professor Audrey Kobayashi is co-author of Race, Racialization and the University. The forthcoming book compiles interviews with almost 100 racialized and Indigenous academic staff in Canada.
Kobayashi says the findings are disconcerting.
“Even though we have known the issues for decades, things are not getting better,” Kobayashi said. “Racialized and Indigenous faculty face everyday racism every day — and it begins when they are
While more racialized and Indigenous students are obtaining PhDs, they remain underrepresented and underpaid in the academic workforce and among senior administration.
“There’s a slightly higher representation of academics than two decades ago, but relative to their availability, we have gone backwards,” Kobayashi asserts.
Where policies and programs exist, they don’t have teeth, she says.
For instance, the Federal Contractor’s Program, established to ensure post-secondary institutions and other organizations set targets and report on efforts to achieve workplace equity, is in jeopardy.
“The Federal Contractor’s Program was abandoned by the Tories,” Kobayashi said, adding the program must be revived with robust standards for monitoring and compliance.
But policies alone are not enough, she warns, because they don’t capture the everyday concerns of racialized academic staff.
Kobayashi’s interviews revealed that racialized and Indigenous academics face a lack of support and understanding, even from their allies.
“There is a lot of denial,” Kobayashi said, “making people reluctant to speak up because the defensiveness creates barriers. The silencing becomes a cycle. This set of issues requires education and commitment. We need an honest understanding of the subtle experiences of racialization.”
She adds that institutional focus on auditing and cuts in expenditures exacerbates the problem by cultivating disconnect among academic staff, “building walls of silence and isolation.”
University of Saskatchewan professor Marie Battiste agrees austerity programs inhibit the academic spaces needed to deconstruct colonialism and racism.
“The key issue for Aboriginal people in academia is finding a solid, good, safe space where they can explore their expertise without backlash embedded in a framework of Eurocentrism,” she explains.
The standards and norms in most institutions, says Battiste, were created with little or no input from Aboriginal people. Indigenous professors, for instance, have been penalized for holding traditional ceremonies in the classroom.
While she is encouraged by “Indigenization” initiatives, Battiste worries they may be “misunderstood and misappropriated. There’s a way of taking big ideas and making them very small.”
According to Battiste, Indigenization should “cultivate opportunities to restore, renew, and regenerate the practices and knowledges valuable to Indigenous communities.”
She is encouraged that the growing involvement of Indigenous people in academic staff associations and in collegial governance is creating positive changes in collective agreements, university missions and curriculum.
But with the deconstruction of colonial structures comes the reconstruction of a new paradigm.
“There is a lot of corrective work still needed in the institution,” Battiste added.
Several of the black students charged in the 1969 confrontation went on to enjoy noted careers. Anne Cools was appointed as Canada’s first black female Senator in 1984. Rodney John became a distinguished psychologist. The late Roosevelt “Rosie” Douglas became the prime minister of his native Dominica.
“They had the courage to stand up and fight in 1969, and they continue to fight to this day,” Shum said.
But not all students overcame the personal toll of the events of 46 years ago, admits Shum, who also brings to light the ongoing mental health struggles of one accused.
“We as human beings have control over how we interact with each other,” Shum said. “We have to look at the past, stare it in the face and commit to doing better. Looking at our history begins the dialogue about inclusion and race. It is our collective responsibility to continue to address it — every day.”