Black Power in Montreal

The ideas, leaders and pain behind the Sir George Williams riot

There is an iconic Canadian image that many remember but most know very little about. It shows a blizzard of computer cards (remember those?) pouring out the windows of the Computer Centre of Sir George Williams College in downtown Montreal in the winter of 1969. Those millions of lost cards and a roomful of destroyed computer equipment worth about $2 million were the physical manifestations of a 14-day protest by black students who felt that their claims of racism against one of the SGW faculty were being ignored. Taking part in the protest were famous figures such as Anne Cools, now a Canadian senator, and the late Roosevelt (“Rosie”) Douglas, who went on to become the prime minister of Dominica. Fear of a Black Nation: Race, Sex and Security in Sixties Montreal, a new book by David Austin, revisits this unique and unsettling story and paints a portrait of the intellectual elite of Montreal’s black community who spearheaded the protest.

The 1960s was a period of social and political turmoil in several areas of the world including the city of Montreal in which a small community of black people—primarily English speaking and of varied historical backgrounds—lived. Increasing immigration, including substantial numbers of students mainly from the English-speaking Caribbean, added to the growing population. (Today, the majority of blacks in Montreal and Quebec are French-speaking immigrant Haitians and their children, but their presence was not yet very noticeable at that time.) It is those black anglophones and their politics in Montreal during the ’60s that are the focus of this book. The emphasis is on the two major events that marked a “historical turning point” highlighting “many of the pressing issues of today—issues of race, gender, and security.” The first of these was the Congress of Black Writers held at McGill University in October of 1968 and organized largely by black West Indian university students. This event was well attended by some of the most important international “Black radical and nationalist figures of the time.” From former pan-Africanist philosophical mentors such as C.L.R. James, Kwame Nkrumah and others, the congress moved to the new generation symbolized largely by Stokely Carmichael and his associates. The latter’s speech emphasizing the plundering of African and African-derived culture and the significance of the Black Power movement galvanized the huge audience and concentrated their attention on black consciousness. The congress emphasized the international nature of the black struggle. In his concluding chapter, Austin makes the key point that black internationalism transcends the boundaries of the nation-state; in fact, blacks have always thought of themselves as being part of a “stateless nation comprising both continental Africa and its diaspora.” However, this attempt to relate black protest to historical processes creating a sense of statelessness and internationalism could have been developed and given more prominence than a mere few lines of text.

The second event was the so-called Sir George Williams Affair, in which black students, identified as radicals, protested a professor’s alleged discriminatory grading by occupying the new computer centre and destroying a mainframe computer. The author concentrates less on the actual day-to-day events of the protest (which lasted from January 29 to February 11, 1969) and more on the personal and political differences among the protesters. For example, Austin notes that there was a degree of antagonism between older Canadian blacks and the newer migrant generation, largely because of their political philosophies and ideology. Their competition for women, especially white women, is also mentioned. Despite differences and schisms, the event mobilized anti-racism sentiments among the students, struck a blow at the complacency of Canadians and demonstrated that the Liberal government did not have “an effective program or analytical tools to help its politicians and functionaries understand the incident.” Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said it was a provincial matter, but in the Quebec National Assembly—which did not debate it—Premier Jean Lesage made only a passing reference to its cost. Members of Parliament expressed fear and a potential backlash from the Caribbean but did not understand it as a racially motivated event. (It was left to the late Lincoln Alexander to raise that point.)

The Black Power movement in the United States found a home in Montreal, especially among leftist-oriented black students, academics and ideologues, most of whom were from the Caribbean. The Caribbean presence and the organization of the Caribbean Conference Committee by “exiled” Caribbean intellectuals are given a great deal of credit for the political education of students and other readers. The writings of the New World Group and their New World Quarterly played a critical role in educating the black student leadership, as did the writings of C.L.R. James and other black left-oriented intellectuals. Their conferences during the 1960s attracted most of the student leaders who were later to lead the Sir George Williams protest. These conferences, and especially the black writers conference, reverberated throughout Jamaica and would also prove influential in the Black Power protest in Trinidad in 1970. Austin notes that all these major events were highly gendered: with few exceptions, all participants were men.

He frequently contends that black history and politics are often excluded from the dominant narratives that have shaped Canadian society. He also notes that even the ideological left, including American historian and major ideologue Eugene Genovese, has paid only marginal attention to these black movements. This work therefore is also aimed at demonstrating that black-led events in Montreal in the 1960s “played a critical role in this historic moment.”

The book also pays considerable attention to Quebec nationalism. The exclusion of blacks—except for stereotypical racial descriptions in MacLennan’s Two Solitudes—is singled out for attention because it demonstrates that blacks and sometimes their culture, although visible, were acknowledged in neither the English-speaking minority community nor the French majority in Quebec. Nationalistic narratives in Quebec do not include blacks or the aboriginal population despite the fact that the discourse of race has shaped Canada’s early history, so that racial categories are “present in absentia” while government, politicians and others promote a “neutered narrative of multiculturalism and inclusion.” Discourses framing Quebec’s intellectual history include emphasis on anti-colonialism especially because of the influence of Black Power on Pierre Vallières as well as the profound treatises on the Negritude of Césaire and Fanon. In fact, the struggle of French Canadians within Canadian society often describes their condition as that of “white niggers.” The notion of Quebec servitude was encapsulated by their appropriation of this term.

The impact of racism on the black population of Montreal is very briefly described in one chapter of Austin’s book provocatively titled “Être et Noir—Being and Blackness,” which begins by citing the day-to-day racist experiences of the diverse black people in that city as recounted to a Senegalese magazine journalist. Since not all those cited in the article complained of racism, the author agrees that interracial relations at the time were changing but were also quite complex. Some further analysis might have helped the reader understand these complexities.

The main problem I find with this otherwise worthwhile book is that it lacks the social everyday context in which racism is experienced. Apart from this brief discussion I’ve cited, which simply quotes a magazine article, the author himself appears to have made no effort to discuss racist experiences with the people he talked to in preparation for this book. Racism becomes a word without experiential referents. There is extensive discussion of the perspectives of major thinkers such as C.L.R James, Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power movement and some of the important intellectuals then living or visiting Montreal for extended periods of time such as Lloyd Best and others. The book more than provides the intellectual, philosophical and sociopolitical background that motivated the Sir George Williams group of students. What is lacking is the sociocultural and institutional milieu in Canadian society and especially in Montreal to which most of these students came as immigrants. Some were, in fact, socialized in Canadian schools where they must have experienced many of the elements of Canadian culture and its values. The words Austin quotes from his interviewees tell us very little about who they are, what they have experienced and how they feel about living and trying to adjust to Canada; instead we hear a great deal about their philosophies and radical ideas. The author has read widely and many sources are quoted, but they are mainly confined to theoretical treatises and, often, literary voices. Totally absent is any discussion of how racism, in its attitudinal, behavioural and institutional forms, affected the experiences of the students and that of their friends, parents and neighbours. Austin seems to have forgotten that in the first place, the protest sprang from a racist allegation against a Sir George Williams professor. Racism is what this protest was all about. To round out his intellectual perspectives on the actions of the students, the social science literature—now very extensive—about racism in Canadian society and the many forms it takes should at the very least have been summarized and described.

Another weakness of this work is that Austin does not clearly explain his methodology. It appears based primarily on discussions he held with knowledgeable people and interviews with some participants in the protest as well as members and leaders in the black community then and now. We are not told how many or given an indexed list of persons. There is sometimes little distinction made between what someone has written and what he or she has stated in an interview.

Austin is strongly committed to a narrative approach both in his methodology and his attempts to explain the narratives and master narratives that govern Canadian society. But this creates a problem for the reader, because toward the end he expounds on the Canadian “master narrative,” which has and continues to exclude blacks. Thus the empirical methodology of exploring the narrative—meaning participants’ memories and stories of a sociopolitical event—becomes conflated with the master narrative used to describe the dominant value system of Canadian society. Perhaps the author might have taken greater care to describe or discuss his methodology and the terms used in greater detail.

As I mentioned above in referring to the discussion of black “statelessness,” there are some other examples of powerful ideas and theories of explanation for black protests that are simply mentioned and then not developed or even used in the text. For instance, in the introduction there is a very brief discussion, citing several well-known writers, about the effects on blacks of the “afterlife” or how slavery contributed to their limited life opportunities. Yet this important proposition is merely noted but not really applied as the text continues. Another example are the concepts, also in the introductory section, of “biosexuality” and “biosexual politics,” which are defined as the “primeval fear of Blacks that is based in slavery and colonialism and the recurring need to discipline and control Black bodies.” This concept is presented primarily to convey the idea that there is an almost “primordial” fear of blacks and blackness associated with historical rebellion and protest. It provides a rationale for the state, in the form of the RCMP and other forces of authority, to take strong action such as the surveillance of black political groups in Montreal. The fear of blackness and the reaction to that fear is further discussed in Chapter 9, in which some important literature is cited, but the reader must wait until almost the end of the book. Biosexuality or the general fear of the black body is very well presented and documented in the social science literature and it could have been cited in the introductory chapter when the concept is first raised. As it is, this very brief beginning section could well be misconstrued and misunderstood by readers not overly familiar with this literature, and the power of the argument could be lost.

This book is about the beginnings of the politics of race that is a “central part of the prevailing social, economic, and political hierarchy that shapes our daily lives.” It is therefore an important contribution to the understanding of black life in Canada because it presents a nuanced and intensive examination of the black philosophies, ideologies and values that permeated a critical time in Quebec and specifically in Montreal’s history. Little has been written about this period and its black history, and therefore this book is welcome and will be useful not only for students and scholars but for the informed general public as well. It lacks, however, a more balanced analysis and understanding of the phenomenon of racism especially as it functions in Canadian society. Readers still need to know about the fundamentals of racism because the discourse of the denial of racism is still so powerful in this country. It especially permeates the middle and upper levels of the institutional structures of this society despite the lip service paid to equity regulations and other means regulated by our “multicultural” legislation, policies and practices. As well, Canada has an international reputation as a multicultural and diverse country where protests, riots and other manifestations of inequity do not often occur. While that may be true, racism is expressed in a myriad of ways in this country and there are constant reminders of the pain and humiliation that blacks, other racialized persons and aboriginal peoples must still endure.

Blacks and other racialized people who have experienced racism in their day-to-day lives perhaps do not need further enlightenment about this evil and ubiquitous aspect of modern social reality. Whites certainly do.