Confounding the Void

The Sir George Williams University Computer Center Occupation in H. Nigel Thomas’s Behind the Face of Winter

• February 2020

i. Haunting

To be haunted is to be visited and tormented by a presence that is insubstantial, one that cannot be reckoned with in the physical world. Attempts to grasp it are met with its dissolution, its sudden invisibility. Strangely, it reappears in unexpected moments, summoned by a memory, or by a set of circumstances, a conversation, or a passage in a book. It lingers. It cannot be reasoned with or definitively contextualized. The only option is to live with the spectral presence until it again dissolves into the past or retreats into a crowd of memories. This lingering between presence and absence is reminiscent of the way the Sir George Williams University computer center occupation lives in the Canadian national awareness.

Each year, as 29 January approaches, some of us are drawn back to 1969. We recall that 29 January was the first day of the occupation. We post articles and reminders on Twitter. We may even commemorate the occupation by holding a conference or by inviting an elder who was present at the time to speak about how those events have echoed down their life. We remind the broader society, we haunt it with this memory that it is all too quick to dispense with, although it now recognizes that it must at least give cursory media coverage once a year. But when February passes and the events of 1969 no longer haunt the calendar, we are left with an abiding feeling of irresolution.

 

ii. Absence

Absence, as the consequence of attempts to erase, is a motif in much black Canadian history, one that has informed works by numerous black Canadian writers.1 This motif is embedded in H. Nigel Thomas’s 2001 novel Behind the Face of Winter, a bildungsroman centered on Pedro, a boy from a fictional Caribbean island, “Isabella Island.” Isabella is the first illusory presence that we encounter in the novel. Pedro’s mother, and eventually Pedro himself, migrate to Montreal to work and study. Unable to fit back into their fictional island society, Pedro and his mother struggle to define their existence in the wider world. They rent a basement apartment next to a parking garage. Their rear window, which barely peeks above ground level, looks toward train tracks, and their apartment is periodically shaken by the vibration of the trains. The church Pedro’s mother attends is located in a poorly heated industrial building bordered by an expressway. The school Pedro attends was once prestigious but has fallen into disrepute. The spaces Pedro and his community inhabit are makeshift. They are marked by impermanence and fugitivity, as they cling to the very fringe of Montreal society.

The novel’s most conspicuous absence is that of the 1969 Sir George Williams “affair,” so termed by the media and echoed by the university at which the events occurred. The novel spans the mid-1960s through the early 1980s, and Pedro spends much of this period attending school in Montreal. His education, and his struggle against disenfranchisement and institutional racism to acquire that education, parallels the experience of West Indian students who arrived to study at Sir George, building an expectation that we will encounter the affair.

Those who live in Montreal and have a connection to that historical moment sometimes apply the corrective Sir George Williams University computer center occupation, which redefines the nebulous quality and the sordid suggestions of the word “affair” and places agency with the students who enacted the occupation and defined the moment. The term “affair” quietly euphemizes. It erases the organizing and the struggle undertaken by students and erases the university’s attempts to avoid investigating a professor accused of racism. It manages to erase any specifics of the events, while avoiding the assignment of guilt or innocence. It renders the participants invisible, so we do not know who participated in the so-called affair or that it was about race and racism. Affair gives us no indication of the politics of the time, whether radical or retrograde, and while it does inspire some curiosity, it also deflects inquiry. Interestingly, Pedro arrives in Montreal in 1973 or 1974, a few years following this defining moment in the history of Montreal’s black community, yet the “affair” is only mentioned once, half-way through the novel. It is granted half a page, and its exposition comes by way of high school teacher, Mr. Erskine.

Mr. Erskine was Barbadian, mulatto, in his late twenties. On some days his eyes were blue and on others grey. He looked white, whiter than most of my teachers. Only in the curliness of his hair did his African genes show. His bottom was plank-flat, the kind Isabellans made fun of. He was about five-eight and stood straight as a bamboo.2

Yet while Erskine is presented as an amusing figure, as a buttoned-down light-skinned Victorian West Indian, he is not a buffoon. He is moved to indignation when he discusses the occupation. He possesses a heightened awareness of how racism functions and of what black students must do to counter its destructive forces. His presence in Pedro’s life is that of a mentor, and he is one of several temporary father substitutes.

We know that the occupation would have occurred at a point in the novel’s timeline before Pedro arrived in Montreal. This glance outside the scope of Pedro’s life and backward beyond the horizon of the present is the only moment at which the events of 1969 are referenced. This brief entry and rapid disappearance reflect several things, primarily that the novel is focused on character and on the personal journey of that character. Readers are left to make up their minds about what effect the occupation may have had on Pedro’s experience in Montreal, but it is clear that the occupation did not define him. Placing the occupation outside the timeline of Pedro’s arrival in Montreal also shows a resolute sense of perspective, in which the present and the intimately personal are foregrounded. The daily quarrels that Pedro endures (and provokes) with his mother, the humiliations he suffers at school, and the awkward period of his adjustment to Canadian society, with emphasis on his poverty and his inability to look or dress the part and the shame this causes: these moments exist in the foreground. The broader arc of Pedro’s passage from Isabella to Montreal hovers between the fore- and mid-ground. Pedro’s abandonment by his father, who is later condemned to death for crimes committed in Trinidad, is set further back, offering context and overlapping with the present only in moments of reflection. The occupation is set yet further back, and we grapple with its haunting presence in a way that has proven consistent for the past fifty years: it looms, but what impact does it have on our lives?

As it looms, the question we ask about Pedro is the same we ask of ourselves: How will he, and how do we, deal with absence? Perhaps every act, in the wake of such absences as those Pedro experiences, is one of compensation, one of attempting, as Kamau Brathwaite writes, to

fling [us] the stone
that will confound the void.”3

 

iii. Presence

If the Sir George Williams University occupation is absent from the first half of the novel, it permeates the second. In a conversation with Pedro, Mr. Erskine summarizes the occupation, and that summary paragraph divides the novel between being a story of origin and migration and one of coming-of-age in North America. Erskine admits that he was one of the students at Sir George, one who was exposed to Professor Perry Anderson’s biased grading. He is achievement oriented, militant, and conservative all at once. What his retelling lacks in detail, it compensates for with incisiveness. Erskine offers a cautionary tale about what Pedro may encounter in his future, about institutional resistance to his presence and his advancement:

“In Isabella Island, if you’re bright, it’s certain you’ll get somewhere, if you want to. Here, if you’re black, most white people will resent your getting anywhere. They’re not even aware they do. Black bright people frighten them.

“In 1969 a biology professor at Sir George Williams University decided he would fail all his black students. He knew we wanted to get into medicine. Only a handful of students get into medicine. So every black student who got in would take a place he felt should go to a white student. I was one of those black students.” (139)

Pedro and his peers are already experiencing similar resistance in their high school, and Erskine is aware of it. The high school is named after James Wolfe, the British general who, on 13 September 1759, led the British on the Plains of Abraham, near Quebec City, against French troops led by General Montcalm. During that brief battle, both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed. The British were victorious, and Wolfe became a hero of the empire. His death is immortalized in the historical 1770 tableau by Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, which hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. It is Pedro’s lot, as a student from a former colony, to arrive in a white society that is also considered a former colony. He and his black and brown classmates suffer discrimination from the descendants of the former colonizers and the inheritors of the colonial power structure. This is manifested in the practice of streaming black students into vocational programs, encouraging black students to attend certain colleges that are not considered academically advanced, and the rough and unprofessional treatment that the students are shown by their teachers.

This rough treatment culminates in a blow dealt by a white teacher to a black student. Other students, witnesses to the assault, circulate a petition. But the petition is intercepted, and the students who are responsible are suspended. This attempt at appealing to the school administration to have a concern investigated, and instead seeing the concern immediately dismissed, echoes the Sir George experience. In the novel, this dismissal motivates the students to articulate their concerns more forcefully, and they organize a protest outside the school. The media is present, and one hundred police officers arrive on scene. The protest features outlandish slogans and crude chants that serve a comedic purpose but that also highlight the youth of the protestors.

Mr. Erskine’s brief retelling of the events of 1969 places the story of the occupation in the mouth of a member of the community. We experience it as oral history. This careful placement tells us who the story “belongs” to, who remembers it, whose experience it defined, and who functions as its guardian. For those among us who are familiar with the story and its local context, Erskine’s telling reminds us that the story is ignored by the broader society. Erskine’s telling is more than a mere reflection of social realities; it is an act of resistance. It is also an invocation, and as such, a narrative device. After the story is told, it recurs, albeit in a more restricted context.

The resulting protest outside the high school tells us that the battle is not over but rather inherited. Its inheritors have already come of age and are already able to assume the roles it has defined for them. As in 1969, when the university became a microcosm of the broader society, the high school in the novel also becomes a microcosm, with its enforced hierarchies that are often unsympathetic—antagonistic—and that follow a color gradient as well, in which the lighter and whiter members are able to ascend.

Most compelling about the protest outside General Wolfe High School is that the offending white teacher, his coat soiled by snowballs and egg yolks, addresses the students and apologizes to them. He announces his decision not to return to the classroom for the remainder of the year, and then he asks the students for forgiveness:

“I’m sorry, very sorry, that my conduct is responsible for you being here today.” He stopped as if he didn’t know what to say. He seemed drained of blood and his voice quavered. “Believe me, I’m ashamed of myself. I always intended to apologize for my conduct.” For a moment he seemed unable to continue, but he added, “While walking out here, I decided I’ll not return to the classroom for the rest of this school year. That’s all I want to say. Forgive me for the trouble I’ve caused you.” (201)

The apology cools the demonstrators’ ire. They disperse, taking the teacher’s admission of guilt as a sign that their humanity has been acknowledged. The protest is considered a victory, and Pedro, albeit with a smaller sound and a lesser fury than Sir George students’, has defended his rights. This repetition of the 1969 escalation at Sir George is ghostly in its nature. A ghost lingers, retraces its steps, repeats itself. Its haunting consists of its repetitive return, and this is precisely how the 1969 occupation haunts the novel, first as Mr. Eskine’s cautionary tale, and later as the student protest.

We return, one final time, to consider what might have happened had Sir George professor Perry Anderson not hidden behind the obfuscations of the university administration. Perhaps his life and the lives of the students would not have been permanently disturbed. The fictional apology advances the idea of, beyond a personal apology, an institutional one, or at the very least an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the university, and a commitment to repairing the harm done by their deliberate bungling of the inquiry and for using state force instead of working with students to solve the matter. H. Nigel Thomas’s Behind the Face of Winter leaves us haunted by the idea that the events of 1969 could have unfolded differently and that it may not be too late to make some repair.

 

Kaie Kellough is a poet, novelist, and sound performer based in Montreal. His current work is the collection of short stories Dominoes at the Crossroads (Esplanade, 2020), which plays double-dutch with time and latitude as it skips between Canada and the Caribbean. His novel Accordéon (Arp, 2016) was shortlisted for the Amazon/Walrus Foundation First Novel Award, and his latest book of poetry, Magnetic Equator (McClelland and Stewart, 2019), was shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry. His sound work has appeared in solo and ensemble contexts and has been presented internationally. Kaie is currently reading, listening, and thinking about what to work on next. 


1. Some works that address and correct these omissions include Afua Cooper, The Hanging of Angélique (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2006); Wayde Compton, Forty-Ninth Parallel Psalm (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999); and David Chariandy, Brother (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2017), among others.

2. H. Nigel Thomas, Behind the Face of Winter (Toronto: TSAR, 2001), 201; hereafter cited in the text.

3. Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, The Arrivants (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 224.

 

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