Valerie Belgrave was among 97 students arrested when Montreal police moved in to break up a two-week student take-over of the Computer Centre at Sir George Williams University (known today as Concordia University) in February 1969. The incident was the culmination of weeks of protest by West Indian students who claimed they were the victims of racial discrimination by a white zoology professor. The incident is recorded as the largest student “riot” in Canadian history and is credited with initiating major change in the way Canadian universities respond to complaints by students. At home, the protest action triggered solidarity protest among students at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies. The protest eventually moved off campus into Port of Spain, culminating in the Black Power Revolution of 1970. She wrote the following in response to an interview of Bukka Rennie published in the March 2010 edition of the Trinidad and Tobago Review.
Last year I was acutely aware that the Sir George Williams’ event (February 11th 1969) had reached its 40th anniversary. I felt that some significant activity should have marked the date, but even the suggestion of a private get together gained a poor response. Alas, it was carnival time!
For a while I cherished the hope that a local TV station would be willing to show the “Computer Centre Affair” documentary which was originally broadcast on the Canadian History Channel and which features significant interviews with those participants who still live in Canada. But the best the local TV station could offer was some clips from the documentary while interviewing one of us. The only volunteer I got was Dr. Edmund Michael of San Fernando. He did his best to live up to the moment, handicapped as he was by the interviewer’s total unfamiliarity with the event or its consequences. I was therefore very excited to see the T&T Review’s recognition of these significant anniversaries (Feb 11th 1969 and 1970) and to read the extensive interview of a direct participant, (to both events) Bukka Rennie.
What an interview that was! Its very spontaneity gave it a personalization that was more gripping than a mere objective discourse might have been. The reader really felt as if he was at a liming session among drinking buddies whose inhibitions were shed. Their enthusiasm for the subject matter seemed to spur the speaker on to express some of the charged feelings of the events and of the times on which he was commenting.
I felt great nostalgia when Bukka spoke of the Martin Luther King March which had taken place four days after my wedding (honeymoon or not, we were there!) and of Bukka’s newspaper “Uhuru” which I was honoured to contribute to. Mention of the sit-in at the Jamaican High Commission made me remember one at the Trinidad High Commission that was very different, all because of the good sense of that great gentleman Mathew Ramcharan. Rather than antagonize and resist he offered us hospitality. That night we actually spoke on the phone to a non-hostile Eric Williams who was then in Jamaica. Naturally, he claimed not to be able to hear us properly but in all fairness he was hard of hearing. The technology (or lack thereof) of the age was against us! Interestingly we were later visited by a then stalwart of William’s party, a young ANR Robinson.
Bukka’s discussion on “leadership” was quite thought-provoking too. Of course in the circumstances so much of leadership was spur of the moment and “oratorical” rather than ideological. The sense of power and of drama made for flamboyant leadership so it was fortunate that there were a few sober characters who knew it was their obligation to make a modifying input. Some of these were from the executive of the long-standing West Indian society of which I happened to have been the secretary
In the throes of the interview (its transcription or its editing) some of the events got, perhaps understandably, muddled – what took several days was compressed into the penultimate day for example. Also what caused the final catastrophic events and how they unfolded was a bit more complicated and unfolded more logically than came across. But then most readers understand that reality usually takes place in the grey areas of life.
I really enjoyed all of the interview’s playful braggadocio and the truly funny stories like that of Rosie Douglas so hilariously promoting himself with “press” but not with “police”. And the improbable ones like that of someone “slapping” a certain High Commissioner into attentive respect and I laughed at the boyish naughtiness of describing a “good” but “unconscious” speaker. Then all of a sudden the laugh was on me! To my surprise there was my very own name. Here’s the exchange:-
“WEST: Have you seen the book, the Computer Centre Party by Dorothy Eber?*
RENNIE; Yes, Valerie Belgrave and her husband, I recall, were two of the West Indians who spoke to that women…We…(had taken) a decision that… none of us was to talk to her…I cannot say if (they) were ever aware of that decision taken by the leadership core.”
Bukka probably heard that we were heavily featured in the book. It’s quite possible that he never read Ms Eber’s book at all. And who can blame him since it was mostly canned stuff – newspaper articles, collections of court documents and statements, interviews with authority figures and black or white professors – enlivened here and there by brief, obviously snatched, exchanges with students such as Cheddi Jagan Jr. That is until she came to the Belgraves! No kidding here.
Bukka might get a kick out of it when I suggest, not without embarrassment, that it seems that Ms Eber wanted (well, honestly she probably needed) some star-boys and possibly some glamour/romance to enliven an otherwise dreary narrative with a family saga. So, enter the hapless Belgraves, the only married couple among the students.
As regards my then husband, Teddy who, for the record, never ever spoke a single word to her, she writes on page 185: “Ian (Teddy) Belgrave’s application (for bail) is one of the first to be heard. Belgrave is wearing a pink shirt and he is a slim, fine-looking boy, one of the best looking of the black youths.” Take that! Furthermore, his “star boy” looks were only to be matched by his good works which she enumerated by quoting laudable comments from Teddy’s former pupils from a school newspaper.
She writes similarly about me, viz:-.
“Ian Belgrave gets bail. I know that his father-in-law has offered to guarantee bail personally. Valerie Belgrave is waiting in the lobby. She is always one of the most chicly-turned-out black students and today she is wearing an orange sweater and well-cut shepherd’s plaid pants. Her lawyer, goes out to talk to her. “Shall I wait around or go home?” she asks. A few minutes later she leaves” (pg 204)
Understand that this stress on glamour is NOT at all typical of the book. But my dad was really the key figure in the business. He was the perfect subject as the kindly country doctor worried about his daughter. Here is where he comes in:–
“During a recess (from the courtroom) today I see Dr. Horace Charles whom I had met at the jail the day before the enquête opened. He has been attending all the sessions. I ask him how things are going. He sighs and says, “Not so well.” I ask him about his daughter Valerie Belgrave who I know is out on bail. He says, “She is improving. She was quite sick.” (Pg 175)
With this as her introduction, she pounced on me at our first chance meeting in a courtroom corridor, banking on my having to be polite in deference to my dad. Here’s the passage: –
“During the day I have quite a few more encounters. I meet Valerie Belgrave, Dr. Charles’ daughter. She is slim, fine featured and wears a turban. (This seems to be a protest gesture and I rarely see her without it.) (Huh?) She’s been sick with a bad cold. She explains she had a cold and then got a bad exposure during the events of February 11, “Then I started getting these coughing spasms.” She agrees it may be partly nerves. “I don’t know whether I’m feeling better or not,” she says.
She tells me she was asleep when the trouble started on February11. “I didn’t know what had happened until they led us outside. We went through smoke, though I thought it was tear gas. They told us it was smoke.”
She tells me, “We don’t know who damaged the computers.” (Pg 194)
I can’t help but chuckle when I read this passage. Eber had no tape recorder and so approximates what was said or suggested by me, but exact words or not, their meaning is clear. If you ask somebody if they’re feeling better and they answer you “I don’t know”, any fool could see that they’re trying hard to “diss” you! Poor Ms. Eber hadn’t a chance with me. This was the extent of my interaction with Ms Eber. My distinct memory is of avoiding her at all costs and when she got hold of my phone number, of hanging up on her
Bukka’s interview was a more substantial statement of the Feb 11th events than I can remember reading but it does bring home the fact that everyone would have their own interpretation of the events, and that misunderstandings still exist. Time is passing and with it our memories unless we record them. Here’s hoping more guys and gals from those fascinating days come forward to share more thoughts before it is too late.