This week marks the 50th anniversary of the largest student protest in Canada. In 1969, over 200 students occupied the ninth floor of the Sir George Williams University library, which is now Concordia University. The protest began after six Black students accused a professor of racism, stating that he was failing them on the basis of their race. The riot was a direct response to the school’s inaction to these accusations and represents a defining moment in race and student-faculty relations. When the police started intervening, a fire broke out in the computer lab, leaving an estimated two to five million dollars in damage, with White crowds chanting “let the Niggers burn” in the street. Upon the arrest, Black and White students were held in separate rooms.
The events of February 1969 resonate more broadly with the dysfunction of Canadian culture as a whole. The student protests represented only a microcosm of the larger institutional racism of Canadian society at the time. The protest also resonated with the treatment of Caribbean people abroad, sparking numerous protests and revolutionary movements across the Caribbean islands. A Uhuru article at the time wrote that “when the people stood up at Sir George, it was a step forward for the people both in Canada and the Caribbean.” 
Indeed, the Sir George Williams (SGW) Affair and the Black Power movement developing in the Caribbean reinforced each other. The Affair took place when Black Power ideas were spreading in Montreal, though its consequences resonated more broadly around the globe, particularly in the Caribbean. A more local movement, that of the Quebec independence and the Quiet Revolution, also contributed to building the movement. This ideological mobilization both contributed to and was reinforced by the SGW Affair. It is also important to note that the Affair has long been left out of historical narratives – indeed, even in Montreal, it is not a well-known event.
Context – What forces motivated the sit in?
The Sir George Williams Affair was greatly influenced by Caribbean thinkers and scholars, during a “period of acute racial confrontation.”  By 1966, only a few years before the riot, only four Caribbean countries had gained independence: Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana.
Forsythe, a Caribbean scholar present during the events, argues that ideological consciousness is a prerequisite for motivating minority mobilization. A major event that created this growth of consciousness in Black movements was the Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC), held at McGill University in the mid 1960s. At this conference, major thinkers such as Stokely Carmichael, CLR James, and Kwame Nkrumah, spoke about racism, colonialism, Black consciousness, and the need to create a united Black struggle movement. Forsythe argues this event was a catalyst for the Affair as it motivated participants to become makers as opposed to thinkers of their history, which gave them the tools to fight institutional racism – a social issue prevalent not only at Sir George Williams University but in Canada as a whole.
In Notes on Dialects, CLR James argues that one central aspect of mobilization “is to call for, to teach, to illustrate, to develop spontaneity.”  His emphasis on spontaneity, discussed in the CCC and later in smaller study circles, resonates in the Sir George Williams Affair. Another major speech at the event, given by Carmichael, emphasized revolutionary violence. These events, therefore, contributed to the radicalization of Black people in Montreal and enabled both the engagement in and resonance of, the 1969 SGW riot. 
However, it is important to note that even though the SGW Affair was motivated by larger international efforts of militancy, it was still grounded in the everyday lived experiences on Black Montrealers. It is also important to point out that this was not simply a ‘Black event’ as it was supported by many White students. As such, it was a turning point in race relations for Montreal.
Yet how did the Affair resonate with broader Black movements? How did that sit in provide the impetus for thousands of Blacks to mobilize in their own country, thousands of kilometers away from the actual event?
This coming together of thinkers in a space of empowerment set the stones for the riot, which in itself resonated in the Caribbean to create further mobilization. According to Butcher, the Affair shows “the inevitable road along which the black movement must travel if it is headed towards contributing to the world revolution.” 
Caribbean scholar Carl Lumumba argues that in the colonial era, the White oppressor was easily identified as the target of rebellion. He argues that in the post-independence and neo-colonial age of the 70s (and even today), such antagonism wasn’t necessarily as obvious, as after independence the oppressor wielded influence through puppets and middlemen. This overt racism of the SGW Affair brought the oppression back to the center of the stage of the struggle. 
As a direct result of the Affair, many progressive thinkers began organizing into groups. One of the most important of these groups was the National Joint Action Committee of Trinidad. This, in turn, also consolidated and sparked the creation of new groups in Canada because of the solidarity and support they received. In Montreal, organizations such as the Uhuru (Swahili for ‘freedom’) media were created to challenge the established order and to provide a platform for Black students to have their voices heard. 
In sum, the SGW Affair was closely influenced by the momentum created by the CCC and the spread of Black Power ideas, particularly from the Caribbean. The creation and spread of ideology served the function of uniting the oppressed from Montreal to the West Indies. The Affair reverberated more broadly in the Caribbean islands where social change was already underway, strengthening the drive behind the growing wave of activism for independence and liberation movements.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image by Michel Gagnon vi Flickr Creative Commons
 Forsythe, Dennis. Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 8.
Uhuru article cited Forsythe, Dennis Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 9.
 Martel, Carcel “’Riot’ at Sir George Williams: Giving Meaning to Student dissent” in Debating Dissent: Canada in the 60s, p. 98.
 Forsythe cited in Mills, Sean, The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties Montreal (McGill Queen’s University Press, 2010), p. 250
 C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics (Detroit: 1966), p. 96.
 L.R. Butcher in Forsythe, Dennis. Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 69.
 Carl Lumumba in L.R. Butcher in Forsythe, Dennis Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 157.
 L.R. Butcher in Forsythe, Dennis Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 106.
 Martel, Carcel “’riot’ at Sir George Williams: Giving Meaning to Student dissent” in Debating Dissent: Canada in the 60s, p. 98.
 Carl Lumumba in L.R. Butcher in Forsythe, Dennis Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 168.
 Carl Lumumba in L.R. Butcher in Forsythe, Dennis Let the niggers burn! The Sir Williams University Affair and its Caribbean Aftermath (Black Rose Books, 1971), p. 183.