Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Prof Neil Cameron on famous SGWU race riot

  We've written a bit about the SGWU riots a few times here and now Concordia has recently put new material up on one of their archives 1,2,3,4. 5.)

   Here's a viewpoint from Neil Cameron.
   From the spring of 1967 to the summer of 1968, I was working full time as the circulation supervisor of the Science-Engineering Library on the Hall Building 10th floor (one floor above the computer centre.)
   From that experience, as lower middle level employee and older student, I had come to know quite a bit about
(a) Perry Anderson, the Vertebrate Biology prof at the centre of the storm, and his colleague Frank Abbott, who taught the other section of the course;
(b) Sam Madras, the science dean administrator above them;
(c) more remotely but in some detail, the more general body of SGW administrators, up to Douglas Burns Clarke, the newly-installed and soon-helpless principal.
 (d) all six of the black students who caused all the fuss and who were quite different from each other individually, as students, as militants.
(e) the leading figures among the white radical students who supported the various illegal activities, like joining in the computer centre ninth floor occupation and the eventual supporting occupation on the seventh floor; I had got to know several in the qualifying year in history at SGW I had taken in 1966-67.
(f) From the academic side, I got to know also the professors who most variantly and visibly tried to resist the madness, supporting Anderson without equivocation, opposing the illegal acts.
   I should also add (g): that I was also sharply aware of the general student and New Left uproar of the time, at once close to its manifestations which I had seen at UBC and Simon Fraser in 1965-66, at U. of Calif. Berkeley, at MGill - Stanley Grey and his McGill Francais! idiocy- and Loyola (the Santahanam affair). Out of this, I drew several conclusions, some still not widely known or understood, in anything I ever saw published in later years on the event:
   (1) Perry Anderson. Anderson was undoubtedly the victim of a combination of radical hysteria and craven university administrative response, but as is often true of individuals caught up in all kinds of causes celebres, was not a man who behaved wisely. He did not so much know his onions. He was an ichthyologist who had little talent for teaching undergrads, boring, distant, without much rapport with students.  
   When I dealt with him personally, he was polite, but vague, distant and didn't seem entirely there. His colleague Frank Abbott, who did a far better job of defending Anderson's integrity and the colour-blind neutrality of his marking practices than Anderson himself did, was entirely different, friendly, outgoing, obviously intelligent, setting more demanding and interesting course requirements than Anderson.
   I seriously doubt if the whole thing could ever have blown up in the same way if the black students had wound up in Abbott's section of the Vertebrate Biology course even if he had failed them with lower marks than Anderson did. It is rare, even in hysterical times, for student rebellions to take place against confident, competent, and fair professors. It is weak professors everywhere, including those who start getting themselves in the soup repeatedly by soft marking (therefore more easily raising suspicions, even if unjustified, of making subjective assessments) who get in the sou and I think Anderson was very much in that category.
(2) I am sure that Anderson marked the papers of black students fairly, applying no different judgments or criteria than with any other students. Well before the final crisis, Frank Abbott conclusively proved this, by taking all of the student exam papers in the class and sending photocopies with names blocked out to a couple of Vertebrate Biology profs at the U. of Alberta. They sent them back little changed, save in giving several papers, whether from black students or not, somewhat lower marks than they had actually received.
(3) Of the black students, two of ther most celebrated and most militant, Kennedy Frederick and Rosie Douglas, clearly did not deserve to pass the course. I knew this because I personally put the dozen-or-so main photocopied articles on reserve in the Sci-Eng Library and personally checked their daily circulation. Douglas and Frederick never read a single one of them.
   One of the black students, Douglas Mossup, read all the articles, and I think got through the exam as well. The three others, aside from Douglas and Frederick on one extreme, Mossup on the other, read an article or two, but none of them reading the full course requirements.
(4) The real bad behaviour in dealing with the students did not come from the ordinary faculty of SGW, or most importantly, even from the small minority of hardline radical faculty who blindly supported the black students. The Sir George William University Association of University Teachers [SGWAUT] despite wasting lots of time with speeches from the reds, supported Perry Anderson. In fact, so much did they do so that, when the administration, the real craven force from Sad Madras up to D. B. Clarke, hired a lawyer to negotiate with the students. That was what directly led to the culminating disaster.
   The lawyer they hired might have been expert at negotiating with businesses or trade unions, but had forgotten or never knew that even universities a lot better-run than Sir George are more like large towns, with several contending groups of influential citizens, rather than like hierarchical business enterprises.
   He thought that he had worked out a deal, with his full powers from the administration and he had won the agreement of the occupying black students. The students even held a party to celebrate their imagined victory the night before the final fuss, proudly cleaned up all mess they had created, cleared away all garbage.
   But when the lawyer took the thing back to the university, while the administration had been quite willing to write-off the innocent Anderson, I suppose imagining they would do this with some kind of covert cash bribe, the deal was promptly and firmly rejected by SGWAUT.
   When the students heard this, they tried to raise the ante by blocking the Hall Building escalators with furniture, preventing the overwhelming majority of students from going to classes.
   Chaos ensued, with engineering students threatening to break into the computer centre and engage in open fighting with the occupiers.
   At that point some relatively junior administrator, the Dean of Student Affairs or some such, finally called the police, and the remaining occupiers (a hardcore bunch, as many had now left), started the fire in the computer centre, the riot squad went in, and so matters concluded, with thousands of computer cards dumped on the street and mixed into mush with the snow, Black Marias rolling off with students loudly drumming on the panels.
   The whole experience not only eliminated any last mild traces of sympathy I had once had for the left, which had been fading for years anyway, but made me ever after a strong opponent of leftist and left-liberal ideas, which I saw could make people in groups behave far more stupidly and unjustly than any of them would as individuals.
   I saw quite brave and resolute opposition to the whole craziness from some professors who were, at least in those days, nominally left, like Gene Genovese, who actually quit the SGW History Dept. for their decision to offer a Teaching Assistantship to a black student named Leo Bertley, who had taken the same course from Genovese on Slavery and the Antebellum South, and who during a mezzanine speech in which Genovese attacked the occupation, had called out, "You're next!"
   I saw the same active resistance from David Sheps from the English department, who not only spoke against the lawlessness, but managed to get published, in the then-popular left-wing Canadian monthly, Canadian Dimension an entirely accurate and fair account of what happened (The Apocalyptic Firs at Sir George), which probably helped prevent any brainless sympathetic noises elsewhere.
   I saw other similar examples, and while a great deal of the faculty did not stand up so openly, most of them did vote against abject surrender to trendy violence.
   I also drew some large conclusions about the whole story, and I noticed something else: violence and intimidation was really launched entirely on expensive American Ivy League and California universities, and had been the work mainly of red-diaper babies of affluent parents.
   But this behaviour was already fading in those same places by the end of the decade. stopped by a mixture of increasing firmness and some abject but more or less successful appeasement , and the really explosive confrontations had thereafter tended to be at late-arriving and less prestigious colleges and universities, something that could be seen from Sir George and Loyola in Montreal, Simon Fraser in Burnaby, right through to the Kent State shootings.
   These schools had certain things in common: All had been expanded very rapidly to meet the arriving baby boom; the boom also meant that they had all hired a lot of young and radical faculty, who, along with a lot of new and frequently under-qualified students would make up a much larger proportion of the entire community than at older and established universities like Queen's and McGill.
   At the latter, then-McGill-Principal Rocke Robertson was a medical doctor and a decisive man - with splendid timing, he chose the day of the SGW computer riot to fire Stanley Grey from the McGill Political science Department. Then-SGW-Principal Douglas Burns Clarke was a mild and mostly inoffensive literature scholar, who actually did his graduate work on The Rebel of Albert Camus.
   I also felt rather sorry for all kinds of Montrealers long involved with , and affectionately attached to, Sir George, to some extent, even the administrators and weaker faculty who had actedf so badly, countless alumni with fond memories of the places as students, and so on. It seemed to me that one of the most painful things exposed by the computer fire affair was not so much a weakness of the University in general (although there are such general weaknesses, many of them in even the best schools anticipated by things that happened in the 1960s) but were much more the weaknesses of 'seond echelon' or 'second chance' university.
   It had only been a little over a decade, after all, since Sir George had been an obscure, harmless, and almost entirely undistinguished night school of the YMCA, not even having the Norris Building in its early years, the Hall Building (the new, and almost entire campus) still only a few years old, the majority of its students still part-time night-schoolers with day jobs, grateful for the modest real education and useful credentials they could gradually acquire.
   Many of the faculty, especially in the sciences, could never have been hired by any old front-rank Canadian university, most obviously the world-famous one only six blocks away.
   The administrators not only had all the frailties that administrators as a class tend to have everywhere and at all times - ambition without talent, venality, cowardice, density, trendiness, etc. - but had them to a higher degree than usual.
   It is a very big deal, usually reserved for profs of considerable distinction, to become something like a Dean of Pure and Applied Sciences at some place like McGill, Queen's, U. of T., at Sir George it meant very little, as anyone who ever had to deal with Sam Madras would quickly learn.
   Some positions had been obtained easily enough before the place had ever expanded: I recall that a man named Don Peets, who continued to teach one course in human genetics, was not just a long-serving registrar, but a man who had been there at least as far back as the late 1940s, when there was no Hall Building, and possibly not even a fulltime department of professors in biology.
   The black students showed some interesting singularities of the time as well. Sir George had always had black West Indian students, but their story was always of a very different kind than arriving black students in the U. S. For one thing, the West Indies itself long had a very good university called U.W.I., using the same entrance exams as Cambridge, which was too tough for most students to get into.
   Not only that, West Indian students came to several Canadian universities (I had a couple of friends among them, at both Calgary Branch of the U. of A. and at Queen's), most often from quite well-off W. I homes and often older than usual Canadian student age (the black students at the centre of the Anderson affair were in the late 20s, and had fathers like dentists), and with their big hope being that of getting into a professional school, above all medicine.
   They also had something of a tradition of being permanent students, because unless they found a Canadian woman to marry, they used to be tossed out of the country whenever their student visas expired. The vertebrate biology course taught by Anderson and Abbott had a different kind of priority than other courses, because right across the country, it was commonly understood that a student who failed it, or even got a bare pass, would, even with a completed degree, never be admitted to any medical school, much less McGill in particular.
   Most of these black students in previous years, whether directly from the W. I, from Nova Scotia, or from the longtime Montreal black community, were conservative in both their general outlook and in their politics; even a couple of the Sir George rioters once had been both honour students academically (members of the Garnet Key society, which to their mixed amusement and annoyance when I drank with them in the Stanley Tavern, gave them the right to wear purple blazers with gold piping that looked almost exactly the same as those worn by the partially-black janitorial staff, with whom they were therefore often confused), and had been active members of the campus Young Progressive Conservatives.
   Unfortunately, they and many others had gone through a disastrous consciousness-raising experience, almost like a religious conversion, during the visit to the campus the year before the Anderson affair of that charismatic and forceful orator, Stokely Carmichael, who stirred up their sense of injustice, preached the need for revolutionary agitation.
   Rosie Douglas actually parlayed his not very heroic but much-media-reported behaviour in the SGW affair into a political career in the West Indies, briefly becoming prime Minister of Dominica around 2000, but died a few months into the job at 59, I think ODing on drugs.
   I think Kennedy Frederick may have slid into something else; I think the more hardworking and sensible Doug Mossup eventually became a special education teacher in Toronto.
   They were less conscious and deliberate agents - I don't think they even intended to destroy Anderson, which they pretty much did - than just parroting irregular troops of the Zeitgeist, but I was still quite appalled by what they and all their administrative enablers and faculty apologists did. The experience played a large part in making me a conservative forever, and a lifetime sceptic about the way people can be moved by waves of political opinion.


emdx said...

My father says “some people are already old farts at age 25”…

Well, here is one such young old fart…

greercn said...

Fascinating stuff. I remember all this very clearly, but I appreciate your insights.

John McFetridge said...

That's some very interesting perspective on the events and the people involved. It's always good to see an issue discussed beyond its immediate events.

Kristian Gravenor said...

Ann Diamond: I was 17 and became News Editor of the georgian as the Computer Centre Crisis was starting in December 1968. I really don't know why -- someone must have quit and there was no one else in the office at the time. I remember Neal Cameron pontificated about all this, back then, and was not particularly liked. Nowhere does he mention Anne Cools who became a Senator. The low-level administrator whose deceptive tactics inflamed the situation and helped send it spiralling into violence was Magnus Flynn. I heard about the secret deals and negotiations from Alan Zweig who ran the georgian more than Editor David Bowman and seemed connected to just about everybody in the administration. I also remember Philip Winslow of the Gazette taking me out to dinner and peppering me with questions I couldnt answer but that made me feel important. He claimed to be sympathetic to the students but his editors always rewrote his copy. I remember sitting in a loud meeting in Room H-110 that went on for hours and hours. It was exciting to be involved in a crisis, not knowing where all this was heading. The georgian supported the West Indian students and we all believed racism needed to be exposed, but Perry Anderson really was nearly invisible. I only visited the 9th floor occupation once or twice and what struck me was the arrogance of some of the leaders but by then the barricades were up. Afterwards, the entire staff of the georgian was fired -- I'm not sure why since as far as I ever knew we were just spectators, like everyone else -- and I was able to complete my year in relative calm.