Perhaps we have television and movies to thank for the image of Canada as a benevolent land of smiling mounties and maple leaves, well funded public healthcare and education and slightly diluted American culture. It’s the most popular place to threaten to move to when people get fed up with the United States. Indeed, if North America was a tasty sandwich we might consider Canada to be the mayo to our lunchmeat and spicy brown mustard.
Because of this flawed yet idyllic view of Canada, it can come as a shock to learn that back in the 1960s, the country suffered a level of racial intolerance to rival the U.S. Civil Rights struggle. This is typified in the Sir George Williams incident of February 1969, when a massive student protest led to a full-scale attack by riot police, in what became a watershed moment in Canadian racial policy. Director Mina Shum profiles the event in her timely documentary debut “Ninth Floor,” which premieres at Toronto International Film Festival this weekend.
The story begins with a handful of Caribbean students at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) charging white biology professor Perry Anderson with racial discrimination. Shum takes interviews with several of the original six complainants in the case, who explain that the biased treatment they receive in the classroom mirrors anti-black and anti-immigrant sentiment across the country. After having their complaints ignored and then suppressed by the school administration for nearly a year, a few hundred students mount a last-ditch protest by occupying the university’s ninth floor computer lab.
Shum, a Chinese Canadian filmmaker known for indie features like “Double Happiness” and “Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity,” gives the film a narrative feel with images of drab buildings against the wintry Montreal landscape, a muted color scheme and dramatized scenes invoking the isolation and surveillance that protesters endured. The actions of university officials, police and eventually the government parallel the FBI’s surveillance of Civil Rights leaders in the United States, not only monitoring protestors but disrupting the movement and inciting violence. Shum’s stylized interviews, juxtaposed with black and white stock footage, then relate the event that made Sir George Williams the most well-known student protest in Canadian history: when students barricade themselves in the computer lab and equipment is damaged, riot police storm the building and reportedly set it on fire.
To see a group of peaceful protesters under siege by a swarm of police bears striking resemblance to the chaos we’ve seen in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD and elsewhere in recent social justice movements. That the protesters are labeled “violent” for damaging property – in this case the school’s computers – yet police are never held accountable and alleged offender Anderson is swiftly reinstated to his position, is bitter irony. It’s one thing to hear of such events happening in the distant past, but quite another to watch them replay on film in sync with current events.
“Canadians are racist, but they like to apologize for being racist,” says one of the original protestors early in the film.
But the image of students trapped by an intentionally-set fire as people below shout “Let the Niggers Burn” tells a much different story. Yes Canada, you too can be blatantly biased and unapologetic. That “Ninth Floor” was produced by the National Film Board shows at least a willingness to acknowledge and perhaps remedy the nation’s past.
The film goes on to tell how the impact of the affair ricocheted beyond the university to affect people for years to come. Here’s where it loses a bit of its edge, as certain topics are handled gently and some interviews seem less than candid. We skirt around the dismal fate of student protester Kennedy Frederick, whose story is told through his daughter Nantali Indongo. An interview with Perry Anderson’s son sheds precious little light on his father’s mentality or the personal or professional fallout afterwards. This may simply be the price one pays for access to certain interviews, the challenge of telling a story secondhand, or it may be symptomatic of our aversion to discuss race and racism in general, but it doesn’t always serve the film.
We’ll be interested to see how Montreal residents familiar with Sir George Williams respond to “Ninth Floor” and how it lines up with the memories of those who were around more than 40 years ago. Ultimately, the film tells an informative and sobering story that offers plenty of food for thought.
“Ninth Floor” screens on September 12 and 14 at the Toronto International Film Festival.