by Jane Shulman
Roosevelt Douglas, a leader in the Computer Centre Riot at Sir George
Williams University in 1969, returned to the campus last week for the
first time since being deported from Canada 25 years ago.
I said I wouldnt come back until I was a prime minister,
said Douglas. He kept his word. Douglas became the leader of Dominica,
the tiny Caribbean country of 70,000 people where he was born, last February.
His speech, sponsored by the Concordia Student Union, promised to be full
of stories about the riot and criticism of the administration of the time,
along with words of wisdom for todays university activists. To the
surprise of many, however, Douglas focused primarily on his experiences
before the riot, and the economic situation in Dominica.
Help build Dominica's economy
Bananas are the sole export in Dominica, said Douglas, and
I want that to change. Canada is a country of good people, and I want
to ask this country to help build Dominicas economy through trade.
He even suggested that Concordia could provide information technology
The 1969 riot followed an 11-day occupation by more than 50 students following
charges of racism on the part of a white professor. Their complaints were
dismissed by a judicial board in late January 1969, and the sit-in began.
Students occupied the seventh floor of the Hall Buildings Computer
Centre, demanding that disciplinary measures be taken against the professor.
Students knew the value of the computers to the administration,
and thought it would be a good way to have the university negotiate an
amicable solution, Douglas said.
On February 11, the confrontation came to a head as students and police
clashed, the Computer Centre was set on fire, and the universitys
student records were destroyed. Douglas and others were arrested, and
Douglas, who was not a Concordia student but had recently graduated from
McGill, was singled out as the ringleader. He served two years in prison,
was eventually labelled a terrorist threat by the Canadian government,
and deported in 1975.
The Computer Centre Crisis, or the Sir George Williams Affair, as it was
also known, was the biggest student riot on a Canadian university campus
in history. It resulted in injured students and police, millions of dollars
in damage and prison sentences for some of the students involved.
It was a fight for black people to have an equal stake in the nation,
Douglas recalled. We had no malice in our heads we just wanted
justice. Its true that I left this country in shackles labelled
a threat to society, but I dont hold a grudge against the people
in Canada, he said.
Context of the time
At a press conference before his speech, he said, You have to understand
the context of the time and the climate when this happened. Even if a
few heads had to get cracked, we had to do something about what was going
Dean of Students Donald Boisvert said the speech was interesting from
a historical perspective, but agreed that the audience may have been surprised.
They may have thought it wasnt political enough. But Rosies
a statesman now. Hes not a student radical any more.
During his stay at Concordia, Douglas asked for and was granted a quiet
meeting with Rector Frederick Lowy.
We had a good talk. He was looking for some kind of reconciliation,
which I could not provide because I wasnt there at the time,
Lowy said. Growing older can mellow a persons radical views
a bit. Now his main concern is improving the living conditions for the
people in his country.
While Douglas said remarkably little about the university during his talk,
he ended with some advice for todays Concordia community.
Instead of being ashamed of what happened at Sir George Williams,
he told the students, Concordia should be proud that there were
students here who wanted to work for change and take risks to make things