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article imageReview: TIFF 15 — 'Ninth Floor' exposes a blind spot in Canada’s history Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Sep 23, 2015 in Entertainment
‘Ninth Floor’ reveals the superficiality of Canada’s allegedly endless tolerance by recounting the Sir George Williams University riot of 1969.
So often when people ponder racism and the struggle for equality, they think of the American civil rights movement. But that doesn’t mean less overt discrimination and better concealed prejudice didn’t exist in other supposedly more tolerable societies. For instance, Canada was previously known to publish advertisements encouraging people of colour to settle in the country, which was positioned as a more agreeable nation than its neighbour to the south at the time. However history tells us this wasn’t entirely true. Ninth Floor chronicles one such mark on the country’s past.
In the ‘60s, Canada was promoting opportunities for higher education in the Caribbean. As a result, a number of young black people came to the country to attend university. There was a contingent of new arrivals that attended Sir George Williams University in Montreal; however, it soon became apparent there was at least one person who wished they’d never applied. In an act of institutional racism, a biology professor consistently addressed the coloured students differently and gave them lower grades than their classmates regardless of the quality of their work. The affected undergraduates came together to make a formal complaint to the administration, but there was no interest in disciplining the accused. Therefore in February 1969 the students staged a 14-day sit-in in a computer lab, which eventually grew violent and would become a dark day in the school’s history, about which few people would ever know.
One of the key components to effectively examining the recent past is speaking to a cross-section of people who actually lived through the proceedings. By recording discussions with some of the black students, sympathetic protestors and members of the administration, director Mina Shum is able to assemble a rather comprehensive overview of both sides of the issue. The students interviewed recall the incidents like it was yesterday and though they are generally very calm, it’s not difficult to see there is a well of emotions just beneath the surface. Their feelings eventually breakthrough when talking about the brutality of their sit-in’s last day in which they nearly perished in a fire.
The combination of present-day recollections and previously recorded images paint a seemingly accurate picture of the struggle, which would influence but not deter the educations and futures of those involved. The archival footage goes a long way in illustrating the atmosphere in which the events unfolded, from the passionate calls to action by protest leaders to the administration’s disinterest in devising a solution acceptable to all parties. Yet, in spite of an appropriate and obvious bias, Shum uses the diversity of her participants to present a relatively balanced depiction that considers the motivations of both sides of the story and the importance of civil disobedience in challenging indifference.
The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Don’t miss the rest of our TIFF 2015 coverage.
Director: Mina Shum
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