When retrospectively considering Quebec student unrest of the late 1960s, there exists the temptation to treat the students as a monolithic force and, consequently, assume one singular, consensual set of demands. To do so, however, is to rob the events of 1968-1970 of a large part of their significance and to cheapen the far more complex narrative. The student protest movement of the late 1960s were united in the decision to exercise direct action outside of formal channels for reform, but their motives and, consequently, goals varied considerably.

Moderate reformers saw protest as an opportunity to entrench student influence into the administration of McGill University.[i] Spurred on by the successes achieved earlier in the decade by students at Saint George Williams University, moderate reformers interpreted the institution of McGill as being inherently valuable. Their interpretation of the administration was that it, for the most part, exercised legitimate influence over the running of the institution, however, would benefit a revised policy, enshrining and protecting student representation in the Senate and Board of Governors.[ii]

Hardliners were a segment of protest population that would later be split under the polarizing influence of Stanley Gray and his Nationalist-socialist agenda. Hardliners, initially, were joint in a socialist-Francophone coalition that saw the McGill University administration as fundamentally illegitimate and sought radical change in the structure of administration, the emphasis of the university’s goals and its function in relation to civil society.[iii]

Lecturer and activist, Gray, would become a schismatic force within the hardliner segment, his emphasis on Quebecois Nationalism eventually distancing Anglo-socialists to whom his theories on radical educational reform had initially appealed. Gray’s allusion to a purely Francophone McGill would prove to fracture the hardliners into those who gave priority to educational reform based on a Marxist understanding of education and those who gave priority to the representation of Francophones in institutions of higher learning.[iv]

These three swathes of protesters characterized the largest ideological differences within the movement and would come to characterize at what point these individuals entered the movement, at what point they left the movement, what goals they sought and whether they were satisfied with the outcome of the movement. In response the variegated demands of moderate reformers, Quebec Nationalists and Marxist-Leninist Curriculum reformers, the concessions granted or denied by the McGill administration broadly fell into the following three categories: democratization of the administration McGill university, the promotion of Francophone representation in higher education and curriculum reform. Needless to say, many responses by the university may apply to more than one category and as such these distinctions are made for organizational purposes and clarity rather than mutually exclusive categorization.

Moderate reformers experienced their first breakthrough with the establishment of a Tripartite Commission that consisted of representatives of the governors, academic staff and students. The Joint Commission, established in the Fall of 1967, was charged with critically assessing the administration of McGill University and was to subsequently report to the Senate and Board of Governors.[v] In a somewhat surprising turn, John Fekete, fresh from a reprimand for indecency, is said to have had significant influence on the final report. Fekete, as the Student Council’s ‘director of education’ issued a report in favour of strong student participation in administration. The Joint Committee’s report was influenced by these notions and reflected similar sentiments, calling for a character of “cooperation among community representatives, the university administration, the academic staff, and the students, in carefully balance proportions.”[vi]

By September 23rd, 1968, 8 students, under strength of the Joint Committee’s recommendation, were seated on the Senate. It is argued by McGill professor, historian and administrator, Stanley Brice Frost, that the students’participation on the Senate achieved the ideological function of forcing the Senate to engage in more abstract debates about the ethos of the university, however, in practice, the influence amounted to very little concrete change.[vii] This interpretation can be seen as supported by the seemingly frustrated student resignations from the Senate, as reported by the McGill Daily, many to do with issues such as the prolonged ratification of a new constitution for the Student’s Union. That being noted, certain structural changes and the trends that they engendered were significant. The expansion of the Senate from twenty-five to over sixty members, including eight students and over thirty elected faculty gave the student-faculty coalition the absolute majority. Five senate representatives were put on the thirty-six member Board itself, the unofficial custom being to select one student from the five representatives. This, challenged the hegemonic authority of moneyed industrialists and capitalists in the Board itself. Finally, restrictions were made on the ability of the Board of Governors to self-select its members, spreading this responsibility between the Senate, the Board, The Chancellor as head of the board and the Principal as head of academics.[viii] These changes were not insignificant, however failed to address the needs of students looking for more than the democratization of administration. For Francophone-nationalists seeking redress for what they saw to be systemic disadvantages and students of the New Left, wary of having their capacity for dissent co-opted and internalized, their grievances would continue to be expressed in other theatres.[ix]

The moderate reformers’ success with the Tripartite Committee would catalyze a further victory for those in support of educational reform. Educational reformers, particularly numerous in the (proportionally) highly politicized Arts Faculty, were headed by the Political Science Association (PSA).[x] Simultaneously urged on by the progress made by the Tripartite Committee and frustrated to action by the seemingly ineffective nature of these changes, the PSA sought democratization of the Faculties’ curriculum, hiring practices and administrative duties. They sought to do so through the formation of a committee dedicated to the review of the aforementioned practices that was consisted of both faculty and students on a 1 to 1 ratio.[xi] After failure to achieve reform through formal talks, direct action was taken in the form of a sit-in which led to a round of CCTV broadcasted formal student-faculty negotiations. The students’ demand of parity in representation was reiterated, however, after rounds of negotiation, the PSA accepted one third representation on curriculum and selection committees as of December 4th, 1968. The PSA insisted that the fight for parity representation would be continued, however the issue of student representation has continued to be mainly unchanged since 1968. The issue of student influence in appointment would resurge in 1969 with the creation of the Sociology Department and the appointment of recently fired activist lecturer, Marlene Dixon.[xii] Dixon’s six year tenure and eventual dismissal would lead to a young faction of lecturers belonging to the McGill Association of University Teachers breaking away to form the McGill Faculty Union.

Amidst an atmosphere of increasingly destructive student protest, perhaps typified by the destructive riot at Sir George Williams University, a potent coalition of McGill based Francophone nationalists and political radicals emerged. Among the leadership was McGill lecturer Stanley Gray. Perhaps it was the very radical nature of this coalition that dictated their fate. This faction would have the least success in their confrontation with the administration and encounter the most active resistance to their methods of mass demonstration, occupation, sit-ins and vandalism. In terms of goals, the group represented the unlikely marriage of a collective demand for a socialist society and a demand for Quebec as a unilingual francophone society.[xiii] In early stages, these seemingly unrelated views converged based on the fact that, historically, Quebec had been commercially industrially dominated by Anglophones, lending an affinity to Francophones for socialist ideals. However, Gray’s increasing militance in French Canadian nationalism would fracture the group, rendering them less potent. Neither the socialist reformers’ notion of a “Critical University” nor nationalists realization of a unilingual Quebec would come to fruition. Conversely, Gray saw his notion of a Marxist informed method of instruction widely criticized as replacing one dogma for another and his desire to politicize student population around the issue of French-Canadian nationalism would be proven unsuccessful through McGill’s relative smooth operation during the October Crisis.[xiv] Stanley Gray would later be tried before a panel named by the Canadian Association of University Teachers and subsequently given leave.

With the firing of Gray and the fracture of the socialist-nationalist coalition, it would seem that the fitful period of student unrest was coming to a close. Robertson himself would give notice of his intention to resign, having negotiated between provincial government, academic and non-academic administrators and a vocal student populace for most of his, nonetheless, short administration. The students themselves, petered into a subdued form of depoliticization, perhaps offering credence to the hypothesis made by Associate Dean of Political Science, Saul Frankl. In attempting to assuage the conservatives during the faculty-student negotiations of 1968, Frankl asserted,

“Look, you know how bureaucracies work, and you know how systems work. We all know this as political scientists. Well, I can assure you, when we let the students in, they’ll get tired, they’ll get bureaucratized, they’ll be sucked in to the system, and they really won’t be too much of a threat.[xv]

Nonetheless, the efforts put in by student protesters resulted in tangible gains being made in the democratization of the university and department administration.

[i] Eric Andrew-Gee. and Colizza Christina . “An oral history of the 1968 Political Science student strike.” McGill Daily, April 4, 2013. (accessed April 1, 2014).

[ii]“Council to Vote on Student Resolution,” McGill Free Press. September 23, 1968.

[iii]Stanley Brice Frost. 1984. McGill University, for the advancement of learning . Volume II, Volume II. Montreal [Que.]: McGill-Queen’s University Press. P. 452.

[iv] Ibid., 459.

[v] Ibid., 445.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii]Ibid., 459.

[viii] McGill Daily. Volume 58, No. 48. December 5th, 1948.

[ix] Gregory S Kealey., Lara Campbell, and Dominique Clément. 2012. Debating dissent: Canada and the sixties. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Pg. 265.

[x] Eric Andrew-Gee and Colizza Christina. “An oral history.”

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Frost., 467.

[xiii] Ibid., 457.

[xiv] Kealey., 267.

[xv] Eric Andrew-Gee. and Colizza Christina. “An oral history.”


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