Concordia University issues apology to Black community for history of racism

Montreal's Concordia University issued a formal apology to Black communities on Friday for the harm caused by institutional racism and in particular for events that led to a landmark 1969 student protest.

University president Graham Carr said that addressing the institution's history of anti-Black racism was long overdue and a necessary step to move forward.

The apology was made during a ceremony at the university's downtown campus, where a final report on anti-Black racism was released containing recommendations to help the university mend its relationship with Black communities in Montreal.

"I hope that the ability to execute the recommendations will make us a better university, to make us a truly welcoming university where everyone, regardless of their identity or background, has the chance to flourish," Carr said in an interview.

What became known as the Sir George Williams riot began as a peaceful occupation against anti-Black discrimination at the university and escalated when police forcefully tried to evict the students. A fire broke out, forcing students to flee the building, and in the end 97 students were arrested.

Concordia, which was formed in 1974 from the merger of Sir George Williams University and Loyola College, acknowledges in its apology the violent nature of some of those arrests and the lasting consequences for many of the people involved.

"I hope that people who are still alive, who experienced those events, and subsequent generations of Black students, staff, family members of the larger community who have been looking at the university will have a sense of satisfaction or understanding and be welcoming to the fact that the university has finally owned up to that history," Carr said.

During Friday's ceremony, one of the six Sir George Williams students whose accusations of racism against a professor sparked the 1969 sit-in, spoke about his experiences with discrimination at the university.

"Throughout the years, I spent a lot of time talking about this issue and I have to say, I never expected to be standing here responding to an apology from the president," Rodney John said.

Lynne Murray, who was also attending the university at the time, said that she was there representing the Caribbean graduates who could not attend the ceremony and thanked the university, the task force and everyone who supported them during the incident and in the aftermath.

Angélique Willkie, chair of the school's task force on anti-Black racism, said the report released Friday is a way to give Concordia's Black communities a voice and to recognize their priorities and experiences.

"It is important that everything that is happening within the university reflects what exists on the outside in terms of important topics and representation. For me, it's all about connecting them," said Willkie, a professor of contemporary dance at the school.

She said the apology would not erase the damage caused but would allow for some closure. She explained that the apology was one of the first recommendations the task force submitted, and she said the task force met directly with people affected by the events in 1969.

"The vast majority that we spoke to were surprised, to say the least," she said. "They never thought they would see this in their lifetime. Some were very philosophical about it, some ecstatic. Others were profoundly angry."

The apology notes that institutional racism persists in higher education today. "This also means taking stock of the lasting effect that systemic racism has on students and communities beyond the university," it reads. "We must be committed to ensure that institutional racism is confronted so that events such as those of 1969 are not repeated."

To continue the work of combating anti-Black racism, the university has committed to hiring a faculty member to lead program development in Black and African diaspora studies in the Canadian context, promoting Black perspectives in research as well as Black researchers and building new relations with Black communities, among other recommendations.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press