On August 29, activists at an action to defund the police in Montreal’s Place du Canada toppled a statue of the first prime minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, who has family ties to the slave trade. MacDonald is responsible for the intentional starvation of Indigenous peoples of what is currently known as Canada, which caused the deaths of tens of thousands. Although many politicians, including Montreal’s Mayor Valerie Plante, are advocating to reinstate the statue, the McGill Daily Editorial board stands with those who insist that it stay down. We must not stop there; the John A. MacDonald statue is only one amongst the myriad of colonial statues and monuments that should be taken down permanently, including the James McGill statue that was erected on McGill’s downtown campus in 1996.
In July 2020, Black McGill students and other students of colour launched Take James McGill Down, an initiative that calls on McGill University to address its “complicit behaviour in the maintenance of anti-Blackness.” They created an open letter demanding that McGill remove the James McGill statue, create a Black or Africana Studies department, create a “resource-based office for social equity” that would provide funding and support for Black students, amend the Harassment and Discrimination policy, and do other work to make McGill a safer place for Black students, faculty, and staff. The open letter has gained over 1000 signatures. On Saturday, August 1, Take James McGill Down’s organizers held a demonstration next to the James McGill statue “to demand that McGill University take action against Black exclusion and marginalisation on its campus.”
The very presence of the James McGill statue endorses a colonial figure who enslaved Black and Indigenous individuals and profited from goods produced by enslaved people in other colonies. When he died, McGill left his immense wealth – which he gained through enslaving individuals and the slave trade – to build a university in his name.This legacy goes beyond James McGill; for example, the Redpath family, whose name permeates campus, also gained their wealth by exploiting enslaved people.
As articulated by the Take James McGill Down initiative, we must recognize that it is not enough for the University to superficially acknowledge its colonial and racist past without confronting how it perpetuates these beliefs in the present. On the very bottom of the “Meet James McGill” page, in a small, easy to miss font, the University states that James McGill “owned enslaved people, a fact our University acknowledges and that calls for our greater study and scrutiny.” Small print disclaimers about the unfortunate truth do not constitute an apology, let alone a substitute for real action.
The “Meet James McGill” page also notes that McGill has appointed two Provostial Postdoctoral Research Scholars on Slavery and Colonialism, Melissa N. Shaw and Joana Joachim, “whose projects will investigate the University’s historic connections to colonialism and slavery.” While this work is important, it is only a small part of the greater steps required to address anti-Blackness in this institution. Dr. Charmaine Nelson, a former professor of Art History at McGill whose work is focused on the visual culture of slavery, has explained that these positions are not helpful in the long term, as “postdocs are the most precarious hires” and only have temporary contracts. We must advocate for long-term, stable, tenured teaching and research positions for Black academics at McGill. This must extend to all faculties and disciplines – hiring Black researchers solely to study the institution’s anti-Blackness and colonialism is an act of blatant tokenism.
Further, we must hold the University accountable and demand the creation of a Black or Africana studies department at McGill that is, in the words of Take James McGill Down, “committed to Black thought and the study of Black life and experience.” Black students have been making this demand since before 1991, and the Black Students’ Network drafted a proposal for the creation of the department in 2000. It is entirely unacceptable that McGill has not followed through, even decades later.
McGill must commit to making its campuses and broader institution a safer space for Black students, staff, and faculty. This includes, but is not limited to, hiring Black mental health professionals in the Wellness Hub, institutionally funding and supporting Black-centered events such as Black Grad and Black History Month (which they have failed to do in the past), and amending the institution’s Harassment and Discrimination Policy to better serve Black students, faculty, and staff throughout the University. The University must listen to the demands and experiences of Black students, faculty, and staff, and consult them thoroughly when implementing any changes that directly affect them.
The work of confronting McGill University’s colonial legacy and continued racist behaviour goes beyond taking the James McGill statue down. Non-Black students, including the members of our editorial board, must recognize their own complicity in McGill’s historical and institutional anti-Blackness and confront it. The University must be held accountable – this process starts but does not end with questioning who is represented in its syllabi, calling out professors’ racist behaviour, and engaging critically with the University’s attempts to address its own anti-Blackness. As the 2021 bicentennial approaches, we must boycott events that do not properly address or acknowledge the institution’s history of anti-Blackness, colonialism, and racism, and support the initiatives of Black individuals and groups such as the Black Students’ Network. Rather than continuing to allow McGill University to make decisions without direct input from those affected, it is vital for us to support the demands as outlined in the open letter, to listen to and acknowledge the work already being done by Black students and faculty, and to continue to support and join efforts to look critically at the institutions that we take part in.