2021 marks 200 years since McGill University was established on Haudenosaunee land. While the bicentennial has been championed by McGill’s principal, Suzanne Fortier, as “a momentous milestone” that invites the McGill community to “reflect on our past, celebrate our achievements and look to the future,” the actions of the university support a different story. On the contrary, it seems that McGill University has no intention of truly reflecting or reckoning with its colonial past; rather, the administration prefers to sweep it under the rug to protect the university from due criticism and demands for material change.
McGill University as a whole has failed to adequately address its history of colonialism, despite the consistent appeals of student groups, activists, and academics. The University could have used the bicentennial as an opportunity to truly reflect on the past – to establish more inclusive iconography (e.g., replacing the statue of James McGill, who gained his wealth from the exploitation of enslaved people) and listen to the demands of BIPOC students to address systemic racism at the university. Instead, the bicentennial has been used as part of an ongoing campaign to glorify the university amidst renewed efforts to show the university as it truly is: a colonial, white supremacist institution that refuses to acknowledge, much less reckon with, the past and its continuation into the present and future.
Dr. Charmaine Nelson, former Art History Professor at McGill, released a 98-page document on June 22, 2020, titled “Slavery and McGill University: Bicentennial Recommendations,” with the help of some of her students. Amongst larger historical overviews of slavery in New France and Western universities, the report also included a critical biography of James McGill as a slave owner and multiple sections of recommendations to redress McGill’s colonial legacy.
The critical biography of James McGill, written by Lucy Brown and Emma Risdale, is especially important in the context of the bicentennial. While the University celebrates its history, the critical biography offers a counterpoint that asks the essential question: what history is the university really celebrating as it marks 200 years of existence? The report shows that the history being celebrated is not that of a self-made, enterprising James McGill (as is so often championed), but rather that of an exploitative enslaver who built the university from the wealth amassed from the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
James McGill began his career in the fur trade and later expanded into the transoceanic and West Indian trade. With this expansion, McGill’s trade empire relied almost entirely on plantation crops and goods that were produced by enslaved labour. This meant that the mercantile business that provided James McGill with his prosperity, that allowed him to donate land and funds for the establishment of McGill University was entirely reliant on the labour and expendability of thousands of enslaved people throughout the West Indies. In addition to owning a trade empire that relied on the exploitation of enslaved Black and Indigenous people, James McGill himself was a slave owner and trader, and at various points in his life “he owned at least five people of both African and [I]ndigenous origins.” McGill also proctored a significant number of sales of enslaved people throughout his lifetime. Upon his death in 1813 and subsequent endowment of land and funds to establish McGill University, James McGill solidified his position as part of the wealthy, elite “white men who used their wealth made from the exploitation of enslaved people and colonial trade built upon Transatlantic Slavery to found academic institutions throughout the English colonies and North America.”
Even within this brief summary of the life and death of James McGill as well as the subsequent establishment of McGill University, it becomes apparent what his real legacy is. Despite this, McGill administration seems content to celebrate the legacy of James McGill as one of ‘complexity’ that “included different dimensions, some positive, others not so,” according to an email sent by principal Suzanne Fortier following the defacement of his statue in July 2021. This reduction is nothing short of institutional violence against BIPOC students on campus, especially following the movement to remove McGill’s statue from campus altogether. Even though removing the James McGill statue would only constitute one symbolic step in fighting systemic racism on campus, it is a step that the administration refuses to take nonetheless. In doing so McGill University only reinforces the sanctity of its colonial record while actively ignoring calls made by BIPOC students.
Furthermore, McGill University only seems committed to taking half-measures that preserve its future as a so-called “diverse and welcoming” institution while obscuring its perpetuation of settler colonialism. James McGill’s statue was quietly removed following its defacement to be repaired, and Fortier has said that the fate of the statue, once repaired, remains to be decided. Aside from the lack of willingness to commit to the removal of the statue, McGill University has also failed to heed the calls made by Dr. Nelson in the aforementioned report: namely, the creation of a Department of African and Black Diasporas Studies and an Indigenous Studies department. While the University has frequently publicly referenced its Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion strategic plan, it has failed to maintain transparency throughout its process and so far, little has materialized from its adoption, particularly in regards to equitable representation and resources for BIPOC staff and students.
Outside of explicit calls to address systemic racism at McGill University, the administration continues to financially support settler colonialism both domestically and abroad. The University has downright refused to divest from fossil fuels, an industry that enacts violence against Indigenous people in Canada through environmental and cultural destruction. On the international level, just this past year, McGill University once again refused to divest from corporations complicit in the violence enacted by the settler-colonial Israeli regime in Palestine. In both of these instances, the University has prioritized profit over any rejections of colonial atrocities, and through such continues to perpetuate these systems of violence. Time and time again, McGill University proves its interests lie in maintaining its position as a profitable colonial institution while paying lip-service to the communities impacted most by its actions.
In the face of institutional harm and disregard for the demands of BIPOC, it’s essential that McGill students not only acknowledge these fundamental truths about the University’s past, but also take action in a way that produces change in the future. One easy step is to sign the petition to replace James McGill’s statue with a tree. Signing the petition is, as previously stated, only one step in addressing systemic racism at McGill. Another essential step is for students to read Dr. Nelson’s report and call on the University administration to follow the faculty and student recommendations to redress McGill’s colonial legacy, including but not limited to the expansion of Black and Indigenous faculties and full oversight of equity, inclusion, and diversity policies by an appointed advocate.
Another step towards action is to support the student organizations who have consistently put in the work to bring McGill’s colonial legacy to the forefront. Some of these organizations are detailed on the following page.
Black Students’ Network
From their website:
“The Black Students’ Network (BSN) is a service provided through the Student Society of McGill University (SSMU), and is available to all McGill students who are interested in the affairs of Black students and those of the larger African Diaspora. We host a range of social and political events by and for Black Students, in addition to hosting discussions and providing mentoring and resources. This includes Soul Food Fridays, Blacktivities, Book Club, Youth Day, Skillshares, workshops, Hair Day, Movie Nights, Parties, Mentorship Programs, alumni events, panels, and more!”
What the BSN does:
“Our mission is fundamentally to sensitize the McGill community to issues faced by Black people both historically and presently. While acknowledging these challenges, BSN endeavours to make McGill’s campus safe and accessible for black students in order to support their academic success as well as mental and physical well-being. While dedicated to addressing the needs and interests of Black students, all interested students, irrespective of race, culture or creed, are encouraged to participate in the organization’s numerous events and activities.”
Why BSN’s work is important:
“The BSN is necessary at a university with an overwhelmingly small percentile of Black students and professors. The services provided by BSN fundamentally aim to maintain the rights of Black students and to ensure that all students of the African Diaspora feel they have a community to turn to. The BSN’s work thus pertains to establishing the foundations of complete equity at McGill and creating institutional memory which commemorates Black peoples’ contributions to the university. Through doing so, we hope to be instrumental in helping Black students achieve success throughout their university experience and more importantly, leave behind a legacy for other Black students to follow.”
For more information on the BSN, visit www.bsnmcgill.com
Indigenous Student Alliance
From their website and Facebook:
“The Indigenous Student Alliance (ISA) is a community of Indigenous students and allies based at McGill University. The ISA aims to foster Indigenous community growth, unite Indigenous students and allies, and develop relationships with other marginalized communities. The ISA’s work is in constant conversation with the ideas and hopes presented by Indigenous students, with the goal of bringing them into being. All are welcome!”
What does the ISA do:
“The Indigenous Student Alliance provides integrative support for Indigenous peoples attending McGill University and helps connect and share our unique, authentic indigenous ways of knowing with each other and with non-indigenous peoples within the community. Our vision is to develop and maintain on-going networking and partnerships with University student groups and organizations through learning–teaching relationships that foster real and meaningful human development and community solidarity. As a small group encompassing undergraduates, graduates, and professional degree students, we have chosen to be based out of the First Peoples’ House at McGill University.”
For more information on the ISN and their events see their Facebook page: @Indigenous.Student.Alliance
Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR) McGill
From their Facebook:
“SPHR is a non-hierarchical student organization that advocates to uphold the rights of the Palestinian people in the face of human rights violations and all forms of racism, discrimination, misinformation, and misrepresentation.”
For more information on SPHR McGill and their actions see their Facebook page: @sphrmcgill
From their website:
“Divest McGill is an environmental justice campaign calling on McGill University to acknowledge and address the urgency of the climate crisis by withdrawing the direct (segregated) investments of its endowment fund from the fossil fuel industry. It is also a team of 150 students who have, over the last 7 years, committed time and energy into research, education and mobilization to demand better of their University.”
1. Complete and transparent divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies (globally, by reserves)
2. Mobilize our supporters in solidarity with Indigenous and other marginalized students on campus, in Montreal, and in Canada
3. Educate and mobilize the McGill community (administration, staff, and students) in support of bold and justice-oriented climate action such as carbon neutrality and pipeline resistance
Why is Divestment important:
“More than $9.94 trillion is being divested from the fossil fuel industry all around the world, and 15% of that comes from educational institutions. We began our campaign in the Fall of 2012, and we’ve been building a strong coalition ever since. Through petitions and formal endorsements, we’ve gained the support of thousands of students; several faculty and staff members (see the McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment); as well as major student associations, faculties, and the McGill Senate.
High-profile institutions have a duty to lead the much needed green and just transition of our economies. This starts by removing the moral license to operate given to the fossil fuel industry, an industry with a powerful lobby and a vested interest in preventing emissions reductions.”
For more information on Divest McGill, visit www.divestmcgill.com