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Concordia University apologizes for racist mishandling of 1969 Student Protest

You’d be forgiven if you thought you’d never live to see this day. A Canadian university apologizing for its racist mistreatment of black people? Come again? Actually, a Canadian university or an American one, or a British one…we could go on, but you get the point. With an academic insider at the helm of our Black Maple ship, we know all too well the entrenched, no, foundational racism of western universities. Craig Steven Wilder’s 2013 book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled Histories of America’s Universities laid out in excruciating detail how the spoils of Transatlantic Slavery were used to fund American and Canadian – think Brown and McGill for example – universities and how these universities became colonial training grounds for the white sons of planters, West Indian merchants, and other white enslavers, many of whom forced enslaved black people to labour on their behalves on campuses across the continent.

President and Vice-Chancellor Graham Carr’s institutional apology on behalf of Concordia – seen as a step towards healing its relationship with black students, faculty, staff, and community – came in response to the 97-page report from the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism, formed in 2020 in the wake of Mr. George Floyd’s public murder at the hands of Minneapolis Police. Our fearless leader, Prof. Charmaine A. Nelson – who has gone on the record many times about her personal experiences of racism and sexism in Canadian academia – was one of the experts with whom the committee members consulted.

The report urged Concordia University – the product of the merger between Sir George Williams University and Loyola College in 1974 – to tend to the past before tackling the future. And the most egregious wrong against black constituents in the institution’s history was arguably its seismic mishandling of the 1969 student protests which led to a thirteen-day occupation of the computer centre on the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall Building on De Maisonneuve Blvd. West in downtown Montreal. For more about this inglorious history read David Austin’s chapter “All Roads Led to Montreal: Black Power and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada,” in Prof. Nelson’s edited book Ebony Roots, Northern Soil: Perspectives on Blackness in Canada (2010) and watch Mina Shum’s NFB documentary, Ninth Floor (2015).

In the year leading up to the protests, six black students had bravely informed the university that their white biology professor, Perry Andersen, was discriminating against them because of race by deliberately grading them lower than all of their non-black peers. Andersen’s racism was a form of racist gatekeeping, his sinister tactics designed to do far more damage to his black students than a poor grade in just one class. You see, his biology class was a mandatory stop on the way to medical school.

The protests escalated to an occupation, only after the university’s delay tactics, neglect, indifference, and inaction across ten long months. Instead of addressing the student concerns of institutional racism with earnestness and vigour, the university’s initial dismissiveness turned to aggression when the riot police were called in to squash the protest. As the former student and protestor Lynne Murray recounted at a public event to mark the apology, “Ninety-seven students were arrested and forty-two were black. Many students, including myself, were beaten and tortured by the Montreal Police…in fact, one of the students from Bahamas, she suffered a brain aneurism, and she died shortly after.” The consequences for the students were life-altering and traumatic with many losing vital career and educational opportunities, serving jail sentences, being deported, and living with the ongoing social stigma of being wrongfully branded as criminals.

While the apology is certainly late, we hope that the acknowledgement of institutional racism is a starting point and not the end of this university’s actions. As Prof. Nelson has long contended, “We need to have a public conversation about the deeply entrenched racism of Canadian academia.”