Our current exhibition, Confrontations – UWI Student Protest & the Rodney Confrontation of 1968, has been shining light on local and regional events that had global connections a half-century ago. January 29, 1969 saw the start of an event in Canada that would have implications for heightening student activism and black consciousness in the region.
West Indian students were among a group of multi-racial, multi-national students who occupied the critically important Computer Room at Sir George Williams University in Montreal on January 29. The occupation had spilled out of an impromptu rally held to renew calls on the administration to address charges of racism brought months before. The students remained in the room until February 11 when reports of a settlement saw them cleaning up and beginning to leave, until police stormed the room and some students fought back with fire hoses. More than 90 persons were arrested – more than 40 of them Black. The damage to the facility ran into the millions, but there was also physical trauma from fighting and beatings, the drawing of socio-political lines, and a raw acknowledgement of racism in Canada as onlookers chanted ‘Let the Niggers burn’ – later the title of a book by Denis Forsythe.
The occupation and subsequent arrests and trials, as well as the wounds received by the students had an impact in the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad & Tobago which was home to a number of those involved. David Austin (‘All Roads Lead to Montreal: Black Power, the Caribbean and the Black Radical Tradition in Canada’) summed up: “Canada’s Governor-General Roland Michener was confronted by hostile students during his “goodwill” visit to Trinidad, Jamaica, and Barbados in February 1969… The following year, mass protest gripped Trinidad, sparked by the trial of ten Trinidadians in Montreal for their involvement in the Sir George incident. These protests spiraled into weeks of demonstrations against the government of Eric Williams in Trinidad and gave life to what evolved into Trinidad’s Black Power movement.”
The Confrontations exhibition continues at the UWI Museum until March 2019.