As the University’s 200th anniversary approaches, McGill’s presentation of history will undoubtedly be altered by what the administration chooses to represent.
Black activism has been present at McGill for more than half a century, yet the University continues to censor and undermine these efforts, and the Black community is severely underrepresented in McGill’s faculty. According to research by the Black Students’ Network (BSN), there are around 12 Black professors and assistant professors at McGill – out of the 1,707 faculty members at the University.* This is unacceptable.
There is a rich history of Black Power in the McGill community. Non-Black students at McGill have a responsibility to recognize and uplift this work.
BSN has been active since approximately 1985 and was predated by the Black Students’ Association (BSA), which was founded in the late 1960s. The group has been instrumental not only in fostering a strong Black community at McGill but also in creating institutional change – for example, leading the call for divestment from South African apartheid in 1985. As a result of student action and mobilization on campus led by BSN and the McGill South Africa Committee, the Board of Governors voted for divestment in November 1985.
Today, BSN continues their activism on campus in a number of ways, including their annual CKUT radio marathon, Black Talk; hosting a series of talks and workshops; and supporting projects on campus that fall within their mandate. They also provide social and community spaces for the Black population at McGill through projects like Black Frosh, Soul Food Friday, and Black Grad. Through their VP Advocacy, Chloe Kemeni, BSN is in the process of passing a Black Students’ Bill of Rights, a document that would ensure an “institutional advocacy framework” through which Black students at McGill can advocate for their needs.
Even though students have been calling for a Black Studies program for decades, McGill still does not have one. In the December 3, 1991 issue of the Daily (Vol. 81 No. 049), BSN published an opinion piece reaffirming their commitment to fight for the establishment of an Africana Studies program. Nearly 30 years later, as reported by The McGill Tribune, BSN is still advocating for the development of an Africana Studies program. Then-VP Finance of BSN, Ommu-Kulsoom J. Abdul- Rahman, explained that “an Africana Studies program would provide a novel intercontinental perspective by adopting a great focus on diasporic African communities.” Although students can currently major in African Studies as a part of the Institute for the Study of International Development, the program is small, and does not accommodate for research that captures diverse experiences of Blackness, particularly those of diasporic communities. It is unacceptable that McGill continues to ignore these student and faculty demands.
There are a number of initiatives that McGill students, faculty, and organizations have created in order to work around the lack of an Africana Studies program, providing critical alternative education.
This semester, Dr. Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor, is teaching ARTH 411: “James McGill Was a Slave Owner and the History of Universities.” Students have described the course as focusing on the “material change within McGill’s colonial legacy.” ARTH 411’s final assignment entails researching and writing a collective list of recommendations for the administration regarding how the University should address its colonial legacies, which permeate its current conditions.
The African Studies Students’ Association also does work to create an academic community that supports Black scholarship, improving and enriching the existing African Studies Program. Their work extends to organizing their own community events, conferences, and panels for interested students.
The McGill chapter of the Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG-McGill) also engages in anti-racist activism, including their annual workshop series Culture Shock, which “seeks to bring together racialized communities to discuss issues relevant to their lives, as well as to allow those who do not belong to these communities to learn more about struggles against racism, colonialism and border violence.” The organization also supports the work of Black activists and academics through grants and research programs. Their orientation event, Rad Frosh, and School Schmool (an alternative academic planner filled with anti-oppressive articles and community resources) work to empower students to question the colonial background of the institution as soon as they arrive.
These examples are not comprehensive, and it is important to support, and uplift the diverse forms that resistance can take.
We urge readers to boycott events associated with McGill’s bicentennial, which will likely attempt to address its colonial legacies. It is hypocritical for the administration to claim to recognize Black history, activism, and resistance without confronting its history of colonialism and its roots in the institution of slavery. Despite decades of student and community celebrations happening for decades, the McGill administration did not recognize or institutionalize Black History Month until 2017. McGill does not have the right to appropriate the history of the Black community on campus. You can honour Black Power, or you can celebrate 200 years of colonialism; you cannot do both.
Support Black Power during and beyond Black History Month. Attend events held by BSN and other student and community organizations – McGill Black History Month events can be found on their Facebook page. This issue of the Daily also features an expanded events calendar on page nine. Support BSN as it works to create institutional frameworks that promote the rights and needs of Black students on campus, and advocate for the passage of their Bill of Rights. It is also important to recognize that Black History Month is more than just recognizing the past, but rather a critical movement in order to support ongoing Black activism and Black resistance. Celebrating Black history does not end on March 1.
To learn more about the history of Black activism at McGill, read our feature, “Black Student Activism at McGill: Past, Present, and Future.” Black students who would like to contribute to BSN’s consultations on the Bill of Rights can fill out the form here.
*This number is comprised of tenured or tenure-stream faculty members, drawn from the 2019 factbook.