The 1960s Student Protests

Introduction:

In late 1967, students of McGill University gathered in protest of administrative intransigence. Concisely, the “student power” or “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) response was provoked by the impending suspension of McGill student, John Fekete, indicted for “participating in the publication on campus of an article which contravenes standards of decency acceptable by and in this university”[1]. Based on their disruptive nature, the student movements of the late 1960’s are often denied sufficient historical resonance. Stanley Brice Frost, writing for the McGill-Queen’s University Press, for instance, described the protests as a subversive plot. The first phase was to circulate propaganda with the specific purpose of “detailing the faults of society and emphasizing the connivance of the universities in those ills.” Second, to see to the election of radical minds to positions in student government and, third, “provoke confrontation with the authorities, in such a manner as to arouse ‘the student masses’. They could then be employed in physical revolts, or in the disruption of university operations”[2]. In light of the gradual success of the movement, it is of utmost importance to provide accurate space for the motives, processes and outcomes of the student protests of 1968 based on their personal, archived perspectives. Analyses of these perspectives depict a much more organized approach to university democratization and largely legitimate the disruption caused by student protests in Montréal between 1967-1970.

Motives:

The motivation for the 1967 outbreak of protests involved a diverse platform of grievances mainly focusing on the democratization of university government and discipline. Supplementarily, students attracted support scrutinizing what they felt was a poorly funded/governed system of Federal and Provincial university administration. The spark plug, however, was the aforementioned indictment of McGill student, John Fekete. Initially, student discontent took conventional form. As briefly described in the Montréal Gazette, “the right of the McGill administration to intervene in a student affair has already been questioned by the university’s Student Council, which asked that the charges be dropped”[3]. The administration was unswayed.

Stanley Gray, writing for the McGill Daily in 1968 portrays the administration’s response to Fekete’s provocative article as hasty and judgmental. Referring to McGill Principal, Harold ‘Rocke’ Robertson, Gray writes, “he thinks the article is indecent and that a judgment has to be made on it. So, does he then establish a committee of qualified literary and journalistic experts to pronounce a judgment? No, he’s not interested in that – the article is referred to the Senate Discipline Committee. His intention is to penalize students with whom he disagrees”[4]. While Gray’s dissent would later have him indicted as well, the student perspective emerged as a rejection of administration oversight and an appeal for increased student participation. Gray continues, students suggested the “advisability of open meetings. One would expect, from an honest and self-respecting Administration, a statement of principle on the question and consistent action on the basis of established policy”[5]. Though the idea of student participation in university governance was progressive for the late 1960’s, this became the galvanizing principle behind the student body’s rejection of precedents and demands for change.

Process:

In response to the students’ early appeals being ignored, they adopted a procedure of demonstrative resistance in the form of sit-ins, lock-outs and attention grabbing techniques meant to rally support and generate awareness. This era of the movement burst onto the Montréal news cycle in November of 1967 while three hundred students occupied the James Administration building at McGill, a smaller contingent barricaded themselves into Principal Robertson’s office and 1,000 students gathered in mass assembly all in rapid succession. Appeals for university democratization were not rapidly placated however, and further protests, gathering in size and scope of grievance continued through 1968. The McGill student experience absorbed students from other Montréal institutions culminating in a 10,000 person protest in October of 1968 marching through downtown Montréal.

Alongside demonstrative resistance and contented advocacy for democratization, the students managed to wage a legal battle reproaching the McGill Senate Committee on Student Discipline. As early as Novemeber of 1967, the parallel, legal arm of student resistance sought redress for the unjust indictment of John Fekete. On November 21st, the Gazette reported “Lawyers representing John Fekete yesterday filed motion for a summons of evocation against McGill and its Senate Committee on Student Discipline.”[6] Though a month later the court would reject the petition for a writ of evocation, the diversification of the student approach to seeking administrative reform represents a unique combination of both institutional and extra-institutional resistance that provided both credibility and momentum to the student movement.

Outcomes:

Despite increasing transparency in administrative affairs, to say that students successfully achieved their demands is incomplete. While student participation was introduced and Principal Harold ‘Rocke’ Robertson’s “open forum policy” enacted, administrative affairs remained, in the vast majority, under the jurisdiction and decision making influence of non-student administrators. “What happened?” asked the Montréal Gazette, “the answer is a lot of things”[7]. Despite student’s receiving “considerable voice in running the university through the senate,” as with all change, the positive outcomes weren’t immediately evident. In addition, the parliamentary format was criticized as being “plainly less efficient, and often tedious”[8]. Furthermore, the student protest movement exposed what would continue to become a difficulty of student government in the upcoming decades; great diversity. Part and parcel with progressive demands emerged a moderate backlash. As described by the Gazette, “the moderate minority made up mainly of students in commerce, engineering and professional faculties is making its voice heard and, in some cases has been able to wrestle control of their campuses from the activists”[9]. One reporter even went so far as to suppose that “strangely enough, the last few years of debates and demonstrations, sit-ins and lock-outs, has resulted in a little bit of student power, and a great deal of faculty power”[10]. To say that the administration buttressed its support and the student movement became ideologically polarized, however, is an incomplete narrative.

In short, the student leaders and popular support of the protests in 1967, 68 and 69 sought increased democratization of university administration and increased federal and provincial funding. The reality was that 10,000 students took to Montréal’s downtown avenue pursuing, at very minimum, a statement of intention for progressive change. The historical lens we have been granted over the past 50 years depicts a much different view of progress and instigation than the Montréal Gazette of 1968 could hope to have seen. In broad strokes, McGill’s student protests took very seriously their role in beginning what would manifest as a contingent arm of a Canadian “New Left” that would forcefully reject the conservatism entrenched in Canadian society. In conclusion, “these and many other actions formed part of a tableau illustrating an entire society awakening to the power of popular action”[11]. The remainder of the 20th century would prove this hypothesis in spades.


[1]“McGill Daily Columnist Fights Back.” Montréal Gazette. November 21, 1967.

[2]Frost, Stanley Brice. McGill University: For the Advancement of Learning, Volume II,

[2]1895-1971, McGill-Queen’s Press. May 1, 1984. p. 446.

[3]“McGill Daily Columnist Fights Back.” Montréal Gazette. November 21, 1967.

[4]Gray, Stan. “Administration: An Unconstructive Minority.” McGill Daily. March 15, 1968.

[5]Gray, Stan. “Administration: An Unconstructive Minority.” McGill Daily. March 15, 1968.

[6]“McGill Daily Columnist Fights Back.” Montréal Gazette. November 21, 1967.

[7]Farrabee, James. “McGill Escapes October’s Discontent.” Montréal Gazette. November 18, 1968.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11]Roussopoulos, Dimitri. “Canada: 1968 and the New Left.” Canada: 1968: Memories and Legacies. German Historical Institute. p. 44.

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