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September 28, 2000 Rosie Douglas returns a mellower man




Photo of Rosie Douglas

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 wouldn’t 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 today’s 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 Dominica’s economy through trade.” He even suggested that Concordia could provide information technology to Dominica.

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 Building’s 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 university’s 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. It’s true that I left this country in shackles labelled a threat to society, but I don’t 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 on.”

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 wasn’t political enough. But Rosie’s a statesman now. He’s 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 wasn’t there at the time,” Lowy said. “Growing older can mellow a person’s 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 today’s 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 better.”








Copyright 2000, Concordia University