Freedom Square plaque removed and engraved into new tiles

The wording of the plaque, which commemorated the 1967 three-day-long sit-in, has been changed slightly in the engraving

Engraving in tiles in Freedom Square, installed June 2020. Photo: WeiChun Kua.

Written by: Michelle Gomez, News Editor

The plaque that once stood in SFU’s Freedom Square, in commemoration of protests that took place in 1967, has now been engraved into the new tiles in Freedom Square with different wording. 

According to SFU’s Chief Facilities Officer Larry Waddell, the original plaque, which is attached to a podium, was removed in October 2019 due to construction, and has since been stored in the basement of Maggie Benston Centre. 

The initial plaque read: “FREEDOM SQUARE. SO NAMED IN COMMEMORATION OF THE RALLIES HELD HERE MARCH 17–20, 1967 AND OF THE STUDENTS, TEACHING ASSISTANTS, AND FACULTY WHO GAVE OF THEMSELVES IN THE CAUSE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM.”

The current engraving reads: “FREEDOM SQUARE | 17-20 MARCH 1967 | IN MEMORY OF THE RALLIES THAT TOOK PLACE IN THIS SQUARE IN THE DEFENCE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM.”

Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS) Science Representative WeiChun Kua noticed the engraving on the ground in mid-June. Kua stated in a Facebook post that the new wording is “a total erasure of history and unity in the SFU community to stand up to SFU Admins.”

In a follow-up statement to The Peak, Kua said specifically that the wording that includes “Students, Teaching Assistants and Faculty” is important to “maintain the context of the solidarity against the Board of Governors/SFU Admins.”

Assistant Director of SFU Communications & Marketing Marianne Meadahl told The Peak via email that the engraving of the writing was intended to “enhance” Freedom Square. “Removal of the weathered podium cleared the square for ease of movement of activities,” wrote Meadahl. 

She also noted that the wording on the podium “could be interpreted as implying loss of life in its initial description.” Particularly, this is referring to the wording: “who gave of themselves in the cause of academic freedom.” Meadahl stated that the new wording was approved by SFU administration and a representative of the SFSS. 

SFSS President Osob Mohamed told The Peak that although the wording was approved by an SFSS staff member at the time, the SFSS “would like to re-open the conversation to reinstate the wording that reflects on the solidarity between students, teaching assistants, and faculty members.”

With regard to the original plaque itself, Waddell told The Peak that there had been discussion with the SFSS about displaying it in the new Student Union Building. 

Former SFSS President Giovanni HoSang said that this issue was not brought to his or the VP University Relation’s attention, noting that the issue “seems to have fell through in communication within the management structure that [the SFSS] had.” 

Mohamed said that she does not believe that this was intentional, but was rather the product of miscommunication. She added that the SFSS would “like to see the plaque returned to its rightful home in Freedom Square.”

Background and context

In 1967, five SFU Teaching Assistants (TAs) signed an open letter to the students of Templeton Secondary School asking them to support their fellow grade 12 student, Peter Haines, who had been expelled for writing and distributing a book of poetry that criticized a student and teacher. The TAs (John Edmond, Chris Huxley, Martin Loney, Jeff Mercer, and Phil Stanworth) were subsequently fired from their TA positions

Chris Huxley, one of the five original TAs that was fired, recalled the experience in a recent interview with The Peak. “It was quite an innocuous thing he did [ . . . ] He criticized the way English literature was taught at that school.” 

Huxley explained that the group of TAs had heard about the expulsion through an article in the Vancouver Sun. In response, they wrote a letter back to the Vancouver Sun, all five of them signing it. On Monday March 13 1967, Huxley and some of the TAs protested in front of Templeton Secondary School and distributed leaflets to Templeton students. 

By the end of the week, the five TAs were fired from SFU, via telegram. 

“The reaction was far beyond our expectations,” said Huxley. He added that he had moved to Canada from England with the promise of the TA position as a source of income. 

“It wasn’t like it was a sidelined source of experience or some money, it was our only means of livelihood,” he stated. “To be fired without any due process or warning was quite a hit.” 

“Students of both Simon Fraser and UBC got very concerned,” Huxley said. Additionally, Tom Bottomore, who was Head of the PSA Department and Dean of Arts at the time, resigned as the Dean of Arts in protest of the firings. 

Between March 17 and March 20, thousands of SFU students and faculty members held a sit-in protest in Freedom Square in support of the TAs. 

Huxley noted that these protests took place in “the era of the so-called teach-in.” He explained that those involved would encourage both sides of any argument to speak. During this particular protest, there were not many people in favour of the SFU administration, “but if there was somebody, we would almost encourage them to come forward.” 

Reflecting on the experience, Huxley recalled that “people had enormous interest and patience to listen to many speeches. These rallies would go on for hours, it was quite amazing.”

Eventually, the Board of Governors met to consider appeals by the TAs. According to Huxley, hundreds of students went into the administration building and waited in the halls outside the meeting, threatening to strike if the firings were not overturned. 

The firings were overturned and the TAs were reinstated. 

Huxley noted that the two key issues being addressed in the protests were free speech and academic freedom. He believes it was part of the bigger Free Speech Movement, that was spreading across the world and burgeoning on the West Coast at the time. In the context of the Vietnam war, apartheid in South Africa, and the Civil Rights Movement, students engaging in and protesting for free speech was becoming the norm. 

History of the plaque

The commemorative plaque was purchased by the SFSS in the Summer of 1967, and was initially installed on September 11, 1968 after over a year’s delay (due to various bureaucratic processes of SFU administration). It was stolen the next day by UBC engineering students, and was substituted by a replica plaque with the wording ‘Fool’s Square’ replacing ‘Freedom Square.’ According to a 1968 edition of The Ubyssey, four students were seen running from the scene in the early morning of Thursday, September 12. An anonymous letter was allegedly sent to The Peak referring to the incident. The Peak did not disclose the contents of the letter. 

The original Freedom Square podium installed in 1968. Photo courtesy of SFU archives.

The plaque went on to spend several years in the trunk of someone’s car, and eventually made its way to a UBC fraternity house. It was later used as a TV stand for a UBC alumnus, who eventually returned it to SFU in 1990 when he became aware that SFU was looking for it. 

The plaque then disappeared again, and was discovered years later by student Amanda Camley in 1999 in an SFU administration office. The plaque was reinstated in Fall 2000, only to disappear again shortly after.  

It was then found in 2014 by the SFSS, in a storage space under a staircase in Convocation Mall. Facilities services told the SFSS that it had been there for at least 10 years. The plaque was returned to Freedom Square in October 2014, where it remained until Fall 2019. 

On the wording of the new engraving, Huxley said, “I can see that [people] might be concerned that it is diluting the original inscription.” He added that he did not recall the plaque being put in place, nor the initial theft of the plaque. 

“My memory of the late 60s was that we didn’t pay that much attention to the plaque at the time [ . . . ] I can see that if it’s etched into the stonework, it’s less likely to be stolen. There’s pluses and minuses I guess.”