In a first step toward mending its relationship with Black students, faculty, staff and the community at large, Concordia University has issued a public apology for its role in the historic 1969 student protests at its downtown Montreal campus that culminated in dozens of arrests.
The apology was delivered by university president Graham Carr during a Friday afternoon event. Two of the students who played major roles in the protests, Rodney John and Lynne Murray, were present.
The apology is in response to the top recommendation in a 97-page report from the university's task force on anti-Black racism.
The task force was formed in 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, whose his death sparked global protests as well as the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. The task force's goal was to come up with recommendations "anchored in the lived experiences of Black faculty, staff and students, in employment, policies, teaching and learning practices."
But before tackling its future, Concordia — which was formed in 1974 from the merger of Sir George Williams University and Loyola College — must first deal with its past, the report states.
The 1969 Black student protests, also known as the Sir George Williams Affair or the Computer Riot, was a 13-day occupation of the computer centre on the ninth floor of the Hall Building.
In the year leading up to the occupation, six Black students, including John and Murray, had accused biology professor Perry Anderson of discrimination and had demanded a university investigation into those claims.
During Friday's event, John recounted examples of the professor's discriminatory treatment of Black students and the university's indifference to their concerns. He mentioned one case where a white student copied the work of a Black student, submitted their work late and still received a higher grade.
"I ended up with five university degrees. One PhD, two master's and two bachelor's. But today, I feel unfulfilled," John said in reference to his time in university.
"I did not do in university what I wanted to do. My life was directed by the arbitrary judgment of a white man. And this arbitrary judgment on people of colour still occurs to this day. And it is up to people of colour and all people who are disadvantaged to say 'Enough.'"
On Jan. 29, 1969, after 10 months of inaction by the university, the six complainants and about 200 hundred other students barricaded themselves inside the computer room, with the occupation eventually spreading to a room on the building's seventh floor.
On Feb. 11, thirteen days into the standoff, a negotiated deal between the students and the administration fell apart after about half of the protesters had already left the building.
Police were called in.
The remaining students barricaded themselves once again and began smashing computers. Countless punched computer cards and other documents were sent flying out the windows, littering de Maisonneuve Boulevard and surrounding streets.
In total, 97 students were arrested. Some were given jail and prison sentences ranging from two weeks to three years.
At the time, the damages were estimated at about $2 million. In the summer of that year, the university determined that the biology professor at the heart of the student complaints was not guilty.
In the apology, the university's president acknowledges that the students' complaints were largely ignored, mismanaged and dismissed, and the arrests had serious consequences for many students, including jail sentences, deportation, psychological trauma and the disruption of academic careers.
Carr describes the university's handling of the protest as a "stark manifestation of institutional racism" and says Friday's apology is a "long overdue, necessary step."
"Concordia University, with the support of its board of governors, apologizes for the decisions and actions of university leaders at the time. We also apologize for the harm that was caused to Black students at the university and for the negative impact felt by Black communities in Montreal and beyond," he said.
"Today, we must recognize how institutional racism manifests itself, not just historically, but in the current reality of our education systems, including higher education.... Yes, this public apology reflects our need to question past ideologies and past acts. It also holds us accountable to do better and reflects our commitment to strive every day to be a community where everyone can feel that they belong."
Murray, another former student, said on Friday that her life — as well as those of other student protesters — was forever altered after being arrested and beaten by Montreal police officers.
"This impacted our freedom of movement, [our] ability to seek and hold employment to seek a quality of life for themselves and their family," she said.
"The stain of a criminal record was tattooed on their lives forever, for standing up for their basic human rights."
WATCH | Lynn Murray describes the impact of the crackdown that ended the sit-in:
Turning words into action
The report from the task force, which was made up of about 50 members across several subcommittees and chaired by Angélique Wilkie, makes 88 recommendations. They fall under four themes: driving institutional change, fostering Black flourishing, supporting Black knowledges and encouraging mutuality.
Here are some of the recommendations:
Creating a full range of Black Canadian studies programs.
Creating a permanent exhibition, multimedia installation and commemorative website on the 1969 events, and installing a plaque at the Hall building.
Addressing the "dearth of Black-specific data" in order to better assess the needs of students, faculty, staff and alumni.
Developing a university-wide, mandatory training on systemic discrimination and racism which includes a specific chapter on anti-Black racism.
Developing a five-year plan on hiring, retention and advancement for Black staff.
The full report and its recommendations can be found here.
Anne Whitelaw, who was appointed as Concordia's provost and vice-president of academic affairs last year, said the university is committed to implementing all 88 recommendations.
Wilkie, who is also an associate professor in contemporary dance at Concordia, is confident the recommendations will lead to concrete action and won't be added to what the task force described as the "legacy of stacked files," meaning the long list of reports from governments and institutions that didn't lead to much change.
"They're concrete," she said when talking about the recommendations. "They're not ideas of what needs to happen. They're saying, 'here's what you need to do.'"
She also said the university accepting the report and apologizing with some of the protesters present is a big deal.
"We can't say yes to the recommendations with those people present who are affected by '69 and not mean what we say," said Wilkie. "It's not an option."
WATCH | A recap of the first 4 days of the Black student protests:
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.