Mina Shum’s taut and accomplished documentary The Ninth Floor is an extremely important film about racial discrimination in Canada. Not only does it retell a crucial part of Canadian history that never made it into the history books I studied in school, but the incident it depicts has continued relevance today.
The title refers to the 1969 George Williams Affair, a peaceful protest against institutionalized racism at the university in Montreal that fundamentally changed how Canada dealt with multiculturalism. The Canadian Multiculturalism Act was enacted the following year, and by the 1970s, universities like McGill had removed their quotas on Jewish and black students, which had existed since the 1920s. In 1971, George Williams University established the first Ombudsman Office.
In Canada, we like to think that racism isn’t nearly as much of an issue as it is in the U.S. To some degree, that’s true: the George Williams Affair protests involved people of all races from the start who could easily empathize with the black students for the injustice they faced. But the brand of racism we have in Canada is in some ways more pernicious, even today. It’s implicit rather than explicit, making it difficult to talk about and address.
The students at George Williams University were clearly getting unfair treatment, but the rules had been designed to keep them quiet and suppress their rights. And when arrests were made at the protests, it was black students who were beaten, who were the last to be released from prison, and who were deported for their actions — a particularly concerning fact given Canada’s recently adopted policy to effectively create second-class citizenship for immigrants.
Told through a mix of historical footage and interviews with surviving protesters, Shum recounts how it all began and what the implications were for the students involved. In May 1968, six West Indian students at George Williams University in Montreal accused biology professor Perry Anderson of racism. He was giving out lower grades to black students for equivalent if not superior work to his white students. Believing the school to be a place where justice could be served, the students issued a formal complaint and waited patiently for ten months. But the university didn’t take the charges seriously. The university administration formed a faculty panel to rule on the charge, but without formal measures for dealing with such complaints, doing nothing was easy.
Frustrated with the university’s lack of action, a group of black and white students from the university, joined by both black and white students from McGill, began a peaceful protest by occupying the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall building where the computer lab was housed. The peacefulness of the protest was not itself intended as a bold political statement; it was merely the Canadian way: they expected justice. By this point, it was no longer really about or just about Anderson’s behaviour but about the widespread systemic racism that existed throughout the university. The 1960s were rife with student protests, a time where young people were passionate about social change, and this cultural moment helped fuel the support for the protest among other students.
The media didn’t help either. Throughout the film, Shum shows us headlines and articles from both the student paper and the local newspapers, which covered the protests thoroughly. From the start, there was an expectation that violence would break out, merely because it was a protest led by black students. Racism fueled the police’s fears and, Shum’s subjects suggest, contributed to the brutal treatment experienced by the protesters. It was only after black students were treated cruelly by the police — and differently from the white students — that the protesters truly understood just how deep-rooted and dangerous the fear of black people was in Canada.
Shum sets her interviews in a run-down high rise in Montreal. They sit in a simple chair, alone, in a vast room. Shum often shows us how the subjects are being recorded through surveillance footage — with audio and video — throughout. It’s an interrogation setting and a call back to the extreme surveillance the leaders of the protest were under at the time. The setting creates an important meta-narrative, making us constantly aware of the fact that we’re watching the protesters and scrutinizing them; to be watched and judged by the white majority is their everyday reality.
In this haunted space, Shum’s gaze is a humanizing one, filling the screen with colour and vibrancy. The film is punctuated by bold interludes in which she frames each protester head on, looking into the camera, with a black background surrounding them. These are gorgeous portraits, but there’s deep sadness in their eyes, which we sense is rooted in the events surrounding the protest. More importantly, it’s Shum’s way of turning the tables. We’ve spent the film watching its subjects. Finally, we’re subject to their gaze, and it’s unsettling.
That’s not to say there is no hope. Roosevelt Douglas, one of the leaders of the protest who served an eighteen-month jail sentence before being deported, became Prime Minister of Dominica, and Anne Cools, who was also arrested, became the first black Canadian senator, an office she continues to hold. One of the initial complainants went on to get his Ph.D. and another a law degree.
All of the protesters continue to bear deep scars — many of them find themselves on the verge of tears while trying to recount the events — but they’ve also witnessed some, though not enough, social change, which they helped to create at great personal sacrifice. There are still miles to go, though, before we sleep. In her interview, the daughter of one of the protesters worries about the casual racism her young son experiences in Montreal today, and whether Canada is a place she can really call home. Here’s hoping The Ninth Floor will galvanize much needed discussion while commemorating this crucial, oft-forgotten chapter in our history.
Read our interview with Director Mina Shum here.