Student Activism

The Global Context

The Year of The Student

The 1960s have been galvanized in international historical memory as the glory years of student radicalism and countercultural movements. They also represented a major shift in the epistemological landscape of the university with the advent of post-structuralist literary criticism. Students internalized the shifts and it manifested itself as political radicalism. [i]While the sixties were not the first instances of student resistance to institutions and government, student action took on a new power in that decade due to the level of media attention that protests and the often-violent state response to student uprisings received in the media. Iconic images of the shootings at Kent State University, for example, seem fresh in our minds today. In his book on the subject, Mark Boren suggests, “that at crisis moments, students are at the centre of extremely powerful sociological, political and physical forces for which they are generally unprepared.”[ii] Student protest movements in the sixties spanned the entire globe and addressed a number of social and political issues particular to the societies in which they took place: from toppling unpopular governments to general counter-cultural protests against consumerism and other social values, idealistic young students took to the streets to try to change the societies that they lived in. Due to the brevity of the blog format, here below I will give a brief, necessarily simple overview of the different types of student movements that arose around the world. I will then focus primarily on the student actions of 1968 in the United States and France, as those were the most influential on the protests in Montreal during Rocke Robertson’s tenure as McGill’s principal. I will present this brief history as a series of case studies in order to try and capture the spirit and general narrative of student protests at this time.

cp_thornton. "Kent State Shootings" Photograph. 2010., (accessed March 31, 2014).

Iconic images of 1968 student movements are still fresh in our historical consciousness today.
cp_thornton. “Kent State Shootings” Photograph. 2010. (accessed March 31, 2014).

Student resistance was an important political force outside of the West, indeed, popular protest and rioting can often seem like the only means of political expression under oppressive totalitarian regimes like those in the Soviet Block and East Asia.  The general narrative in Soviet controlled states can be accessed through the Prague Spring. In 1967 Czech students took to the streets “holding candles and shouting for power.” [iii] The protest was met with a massively brutal, violent police crackdown. The state-controlled press pinned the blame for the violence on the students, who responded with a poster campaign to try and set the record straight about police violence. The movement continued until the fall of 1968 and managed to achieve a few political and social reforms but was ultimately crushed by the Soviet army. After that, Czech students staged sporadic protests and increasingly resorted to more desperate tactics like terrorism and public suicide, while this sometimes-garnered international attention, they failed to enact any meaningful change. [iv]

By contrast, much of East Asia in the 1960s was far less stable than the Soviet republics, allowing student protests to enact much more powerful political change. In Indonesia, president Sukarno was maintaining a tenuous grip on his control of the country balancing his power between the communists and the military.[v] Indonesia’s students were basically at war, with communist student organizations battling anti-communist students in the streets. The anti-communist student organization, KAMI, using a long-term media strategy, was able to gain popular support and called for Sukarno’s ousting. Unable to control the situation, Sukarno turned it over to his general, Suharto. He orchestrated a military coup and KAMI continued to exercise some political power, but deprived of its unifying opponent, infighting and factionalism undermined its power.

1968 is often called The Year of the Student, and like another important political revolution it began in Paris. In January a student group calling themselves Les Enragés began agitating on the Nanterre campus of the University of Paris for educational reform as well as the destruction of imperialism, the military and the bourgeoisie.  When the university decided to hold disciplinary hearings for the leaders of the group on May 6, students held large-scale protests at the Sorbonne that erupted into riots in which hundreds were injured. The uprising continued to spread through the streets of Paris and by May 5 a national student strike was declared. Students gained the support of labour unions and occupied Paris’ Left Bank. Victory seemed imminent when president de Gaulle fled Paris at the end of May. He returned a day later though; calling a general election and giving a speech that enjoyed a surprising amount of support from a Parisian population that was fed up with the interruption of their daily life by a student movement that seemed radical and disorganized. [vi] Upon winning the election, de Gaulle introduced educational reforms and a wage increase that was enough to satisfy striking students and workers, he used his political power deftly in order to hamstring a student movement that might topple his regime. While the French student movement was ultimately unsuccessful in toppling de Gaulle, it served as an inspiration for students all around the world due to its material successes in taking over the universities and indeed, a large section of Paris and achieving an effective general strike and support from labour.

 George Louis. "French workers with placard during occupation of their factory 1968" Photograph. 1968., (accessed March 31, 2014).

Student movements in France gained the support of labour making them a great deal more effective.
George Louis. “French workers with placard during occupation of their factory 1968” Photograph. 1968. (accessed March 31, 2014).

The year of the student in the United States saw students fighting for two distinct political goals: Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War.  The year of action began at South Carolina State College where students began demonstrating for university reforms centred on civil rights. They received support from Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee and as such the protests ballooned in size. The National Guard was called in and as students charged police officers began shooting, killing three students and wounding 27 more. The violence served to spread the fires of resistance across the country; students occupied buildings at Howard University and managed to obtain some reforms to their representation there as well as freedom from formal charges due to their actions. The action spread to traditionally white universities as well, students at Columbia combined the two goals, protesting the construction of a new gymnasium in Harlem that would not be accessible to the black residents there as well as the university’s involvement in research that aided the Vietnam War. Students occupied a number of major faculties and the police were called in to evict them from the buildings, the ensuing violence would come to be known as the Battle of Morningside Heights. Following the violence, students went on strike to protest disciplinary action against the movement’s leaders. “The Columbia University revolt showed students that…the university was the perfect site for protests… idealism and freedom of expression were – at least theoretically – on equal footing with political realism”[vii] The anti-Vietnam War movement came to a head at the Democratic convention in Chicago where students supported an anti-war candidate. The “Siege of Chicago” was widely covered in the national media and ultimately undermined the Democratic campaign in the election allowing Richard Nixon an easy victory. Student movements in the United States did more in the way of provoking thought and swaying national opinion than in enacting real reform. Some historians assert that protest was only possible due to the elitist background of dissident students and the idealism that afforded them[viii]. Nonetheless, The Year of the Student lives on in history as an important political turning point in the power of young people across the world.

[i] Edward Ericson, Radicals in the University, (California: Hoover Institution Press, 1975)

[ii] Mark Delman Boren, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, (New York: Routledge, 2001), 4.

[iii] Ibid. 136

[iv] Ibid. 136

[v] Antoine C.A. Drake, The Sukarno File 1956-1967: Chronology of a Defeat, (Boston: Brill 2006).

[vi] Boren, Student Resistance. 154

[vii] Ibid. 176

[viii] Edward E Sampson, Student Activism and Protest, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970), 4.


The 1960s Student Protests


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.


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.


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.


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.