‘Ninth Floor’ Explores a Traumatic Moment in Canada’s History

National Film Board of Canada

Some old national wounds never entirely heal. They remain raw, even decades later, and even if society as a whole has begun to evolve in the direction of healing and justice. One such instance of violence and crisis began on January 29, 1969, in Canada. With Ninth Floor, filmmaker Mina Shum rediscovers this seminal conflict and approaches a more thoroughly understanding of its residual pain.

It began with a group of six West Indian students at Sir George Williams University, a school in Montreal that is now part of Concordia University. They accused their biology professor, Perry Anderson, of racial discrimination in the form of unfair grading. In May 1968 they approached the school administration and were met with the sort of institutional resistance that masks cold intransigence with a veneer of bureaucratic sluggishness. By January of the following year things had reached a breaking point. A few hundred students, moved by solidarity with the six initial complainants and larger issues of racial discrimination in Montreal, occupied the computer lab on the ninth floor of the Henry F. Hall Building. On February 11th, riot police moved in to remove the protesters. A fire broke out, students were arrested, and many of the details remain in dispute.

The occupation of school property was hardly an inevitability. Each move by the Sir George Williams administration to delay resolution empowered the more radical wing of the student organization. Shum highlights this both with the 20/20 hindsight of 21st century interviews and footage of student meetings that was shot during the crisis. The latter material illustrates the fiery uncertainty of the student movement, which feels as exciting and new as it does nebulous and suggestible.

The images of aging activists and their now-adult children, shot by Shum around the 45th anniversary of the computer lab occupation, have a much different character. She did much of her filming on the now-Concordia University campus, taking advantage of the unfriendly Brutalist architecture of academic Montreal to drive home the alienation of a harsh and racist society. The interview subjects appear at odd angles, in darkened classrooms and amid forbidding hallways. One shot even peers through a small window from the room next door. It shares the mood of David Cronenberg’s very early student features, which found a science fiction chill in the Brutalist university buildings of Ontario.

This creative style makes it all the more frustrating when the last third of the film backs away from interpreting the various themes that are introduced in the first hour. Part of this is a side effect of issues of participation. There can be no confrontation with Professor Anderson because he declined to be interviewed, and his son’s mild apology for his father’s behavior hardly feels like closure. The most radical of the original students, Kennedy Frederick, is also unavailable. His daughter, musician Nantali Indongo, represents him. Her disenchantment with Canada is powerful and ties in with Shum’s focus on how many of those involved in the protests found political refuge and fame in the West Indies. One of the students arrested, for example, is Rosie Douglas. He was deported back to Dominica and would become its Prime Minister in 2000. There is a great sense in the final scenes of Ninth Floor that there remains no true comfort in Canada for West Indian immigrants.

Yet this brushes uncomfortably up against the presence of Anne Cools, another arrested student who Shum interviews at length. In 1984 she became the first black Canadian to be appointed to the Senate, and is currently its longest-serving member. This is included in the wrap-up titles before the credits, but there is no real effort to address how this squares with the prior “impossibility of integration” thesis. This is not to say that Cools’s career has never been vexed by racism or the awkwardness of immigrant status. But the fact that Shum essentially cedes the conclusions of her film to Indongo and a more simplistically bleak interpretation of post-1969 Canada weakens it. There is very little real sense of the impact of the Sir George Williams affair in the 40-plus years since the computer lab caught fire. Were this a project as focused on the history as, say, Let the Fire Burn, that would be fine. It is not. Shum spends too much time in the present to leave it so unexamined.

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Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.