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  • History vs. Historical MemoryRosie Douglas, Black Power on Campus, and the Canadian Color Conceit1
  • Michael O. West (bio)

Rosie Douglas was prime minister of the eastern Caribbean island-nation of Dominica for just eight months when he died suddenly in October 2000. The apparent cause of death, a heart attack, would be disputed. Some Dominicans suspected foul play, giving rise to rumors that the prime minister, who was loved and loathed in equal measure in and out of his country, had been the victim of some perfidious plot. The reception of Douglas's death is something of a metaphor for his life.

From the standpoint of historical memory, the most enduring riddle in Douglas's very colorful public life is the part he is reputed to have played in a crisis at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Canada in 1969. An event with deep racial and racist overtones and undertones, the crisis culminated in the fiery destruction of the university's computer center. In an era pockmarked by campus protests worldwide, the crisis at Sir George was easily among the most destructive, causing some two million in property damage.2 Miraculously, there was no loss of life. The Sir George crisis had far-reaching consequences, in Canada and in the Caribbean, home to many of the leading protagonists in the drama.

All modern nation-states, Benedict Anderson has long since taught, are imagined communities.3 In the case of Canada, the national imaginary includes certain fables about black people. At the core of this Canadian color conceit, [End Page 84] as I will call it, is the notion that Canada historically is a colorblind society, unburdened by the legacies of slavery, racism, and apartheid-like exclusion. Such fanciful claims are, of course, flatly belied by the actual experiences of black (and other nonwhite) people in Canada, then and now.4 The Canadian color conceit was refuted, too, by Black Power, that loose but vibrant amalgamation of movements that electrified black people the world over in the 1960s and 1970s. The Sir George crisis was the culmination of a confrontation, on campus, between Black Power and the Canadian color conceit, as participants and observers alike readily grasped.5

In 1974, five years after the crisis, Sir George Williams University changed its name to Concordia University, officially through a merger with nearby Loyola College, a smaller institution. In fact, Sir George had acquired Loyola through a corporate-style friendly takeover. It may be safely assumed that one important, if unstated, reason for the takeover was an attempt to overcome the trauma of the crisis and the accompanying scar it left on Sir George. The adoption of the new namewas an exercise in academic rebranding, an attempt to efface the Sir George brand, which was seen as having been tainted by the crisis of 1969. Potential students, and their parents, may have begun to look askance at Sir George. Alumni may also have wondered about possible harm to their degrees. Potential donors, weary as always of "controversy," could have become skittish about Sir George as an "investment." The name change would have been designed to help allay all such concerns. The transition to Concordia was consistent, too, with the Canadian color conceit, the name Sir George Williams University having become a byword for racially unpleasant events that were best forgotten, or suppressed.

An event capable of causing such a thorough nomenclatorial erasure also has the capacity to create other fables, as has been shown in other aspects of the Canadian experience.6 Sure enough, various fictive narratives have been constructed around the Sir George crisis, and specifically the blowup of the computer center. Many of these narratives, especially in the popular media, came to assign Rosie Douglas a leading role—indeed, the leading role. From Canada to the Caribbean, it became received wisdom that Douglas bore chief responsibility for the crisis and its explosive ending. Douglas was "the charismatic leader" of the students involved in the crisis, a disapproving Concordia University publication informed readers several months before his death.7 An approving Tim Hector, outstanding Caribbean organic intellectual from Antigua and Douglas's friend, heartily concurred, albeit from...