In 1969 some 400 hundred students at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec staged an occupation of the school's computer lab on the ninth floor. The reason: six students of Caribbean descent had accused professor Perry Anderson of racism, citing things like lower grades for the exact same work that white students did, and took their complaint to the school administration.
When the school failed to respond adequately they staged their sit-in, creating a nationwide media frenzy that resulted in vandalism of the school's computers, an attack on the students by riot police, a suspicious fire in the building, spy novel-worthy accusations of agent provocateurism, and, eventually, charges against many of the students.
Vancouver-based filmmaker Mina Shum tracked down many of the principle figures for the documentary Ninth Floor, which premiered recently at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Included in the film are Anne Cools, who'd go on to become the first black senator in Canada; Terrance Ballantyne, who later became a lawyer in Trinidad; and, through found archival footage, the late Rosie Douglas, who'd go on to become the prime minister of Dominica. Additionally, professor Anderson's son Duff and Nantalia Indongo, the daughter of pivotal protest figure Kennedy Frederick, explain how these events from 45 years ago are still affecting their families here and now.
In the immediate aftermath of the Sir George affair a national multicultural policy and a human rights complaints office were created, but there was a human cost. In particular, key figures Frederick and Anderson would both face subsequent bouts of mental illness.
Samaritanmag spoke to Shum about Ninth Floor and what we might learn from it right now.
How did you come up with the idea to do Ninth Floor?
Selwyn Jacob, my producer, has been sitting on this story for 45 years. He was a student at the University of Alberta back then. He's Trinidadian and the event happened in Montreal and he felt tension in his own university because of what happened.
He told me about these events at a meeting and I immediately went, "Oh my, this should be a fictional feature film." And he went, "Oh no, we make documentaries." And I looked into a couple of facts that really got me hooked — the charges of racism. The actual charges of racism are there on a piece of paper and I've actually never seen that in my life.
I just thought it was so bold. And then on top of it he told me that all the students were under surveillance. So immediately I started to think about metaphors for power, vision and fear. I'm not really interested in just a historical document because a journalist can do that. What I'm interested in is trying to bridge the conscious and the unconscious and trying to reveal what might not be in the headlines of the story. And I was really excited when I started talking to some of the key figures in the protest because they were super, super-articulate and intelligent.
I could tell right away from the phone calls that they would be great in terms of recounting their story. And it also felt ripe. They felt ripe to tell their story.
This strikes me as a very historic, very important event, but I've never heard of it before. Is that just me? Why don't people know more about this?
I had never heard about this either. And actually that's another reason why I wanted to make this film. Why had I not heard of this? I grew up in Canada in mandated multiculturalism. We emigrated here in 1966. I was a year old, so with mandated multiculturalism wouldn't you know about this from the beginning? But we didn't. Nobody did.
I think they were uncomfortable, we didn't feel the need... we're so dirty laundry, we don't talk about it, we'd rather leave things pleasant. I mean, I think it's super-important to talk about unpleasant things to raise any issues. Like, if you and I had a problem with each other I think if we're going to work together and we're going to grow together, we've got to talk about it. And not in an accusatory way. I know when I talk about this film I talk about the world "we" as if I have something to do with the cause and effect and everything of it. Because I do believe there's no us versus them, it's just us. The good, the bad and the ugly, we all live together.
After I said to myself, "Why didn't I know about this before?" I didn't have a good answer. Was part of it because most of these students were from the Caribbean?