Born of profits from slavery, McGill celebrates bicentennial without confronting its past

The university is paying curiously little attention to its birth and legacy of anti-Black racism
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To usher in its upcoming 200th birthday, McGill University launched an initiative called The Road to 200 to research some of the world’s “grand challenges” and “strive to be a model for how universities can meet the challenges of a future that defies imagination.” Along with planning a year of festivities, it also embarked on an ambitious fundraising campaign and has raised more than half of its $2-billion target. But amid the celebrations, the institution is paying curiously little attention to its actual birth.

James McGill was among Montreal’s richest people when he died in 1813, bequeathing £10,000 to establish a college in his name. He was also a slave owner — he enslaved at least five people in his house, including two Indigenous children and three people of African descent — slave trader, and merchant who sold goods produced by slaves in other colonies. His immense profits from slavery thus became the university’s. Further embedding racism in the university’s foundation, only white and male students and professors were admitted upon its establishment in 1821.

Dr. Charmaine Nelson
Charles Michael

“Quite honestly I think it’s appalling that the university is not taking any steps to acknowledge this so close to its bicentennial,” says Dr. Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University.

Dr. Nelson recently released a 97-page report, Slavery and McGill University: Bicentennary Recommendations. Ahead of the school’s 200th anniversary in 2021, “it became apparent that McGill’s upper administration was not going to capitalize upon this important milestone to strike a taskforce or working group to investigate the university’s profound and indisputable historical links to slavery,” notes the report. So Dr. Nelson and 19 seminar students spent a semester researching and producing the report, which offers recommendations for the university to begin a process of redress.

Few Canadians know that Black people have lived in the country since the 1600s.

This report, she says, is doing the work that the university should be undertaking, by using the opportunity of its bicentennial to confront its links to slavery as well as make McGill a more equal institution for Black and Indigenous students and professors.

One of the recommendations is to create a mandatory course for all undergraduate students on the involvement of James McGill and Quebec in transatlantic slavery. Chris Gismondi, a PhD candidate in art history and one of the students who worked on the report, says it’s important to look at the past to “complexify history instead of living with half-truths of Canadian benevolence.”

Few Canadians know that Black people have lived in the country since the 1600s. “There’s such a lack of knowledge of the history of enslaved people in Canada that people don’t understand the long presence of Black people in Canada,” says Dr. Nelson. Her research shows that the British and the French practised slavery in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, selling people privately or at public auctions. Despite centuries-long roots in Canada, Black people are still largely seen as foreign due to ignorance of this history. “The joke among Black people in Canada,” says Dr. Nelson, “is getting the ‘where are you from’ question from white people.”

McGill University has yet to come to terms with its history and substantively address racism on its campus. Institutions across the United States began the process of redress several years ago, but it has been much slower in Canada. Only three Canadian universities — all located in the Maritimes — are listed as participants in Universities Studying Slavery, which is a cooperative effort among educational institutions to address their complicated legacies of slavery and current issues of race and inequality.

In an email statement to Ricochet, McGill University acknowledged that James McGill’s connection to slavery and colonialism is not one of which the institution is proud. “The key question that animates our reflection is: How can a study of our institutional history, marked by honesty and humility, inform current and future actions to ensure that McGill achieves greater equity and representation as it pursues its academic mission into its 3rd century?”

McGill has recruited two postdoctoral fellows to examine the university’s historical links to slavery, but Dr. Nelson says this is not enough because “postdocs are the most precarious hires” and have only temporary contracts. Further, the university has not specified what will come of the study and how it will be disseminated.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides more evidence of the 400-year legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism, as Black communities have experienced higher rates of infection and death.

According to Dr. Nelson, only 0.5 per cent of McGill’s faculty are Black, and she is one of only 10 Black professors among the university’s more than 1,700 tenured or tenure-track professors. One of the recommendations in her report is to create a new department of African and Black Diaspora Studies, which would necessitate the hiring of more Black faculty members, thereby addressing their underrepresentation at McGill. (The report also recommends the establishment of an Indigenous Studies department, which would address a similar lack of Indigenous faculty.) Right now the country has no academic departments dedicated to the study of the African diaspora in Canada or Canadian slavery, in contrast to hundreds of such departments in the United States.

“For this reason, it’s only possible to get piecemeal education on Canadian slavery,” says Dr. Nelson, who will soon be leaving McGill. As the recipient of a seven-year grant through a Canada Research Chair at NSCAD University in Halifax, she will be creating a physical institution devoted to the study of Canadian slavery. The Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery will be the first of its kind in the country.

The police killing of George Floyd in the United States started a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests last May, with private and public institutions being forced to confront their historical ties to slavery. Canada, too, has been forced to look inward. While the country has arguably begun to face the fact that it came to life on stolen land by uprooting and colonizing Indigenous Peoples, it has been able to evade its connection to the transatlantic slave trade.

The myth that slavery did not exist in Canada has been perpetuated by the story of the Underground Railroad, a network that enabled enslaved people in the United States to travel secretly and escape to Canada. In contrast to its more abrasive neighbour to the south, Canada has also branded itself as a place of multiculturalism and inclusivity.

The question is whether Canadian institutions are willing to live up to the country’s promise. “Are they willing to invest resources to investigate why their institutions are so white?” asks Dr. Nelson. Her students undertook this task in four months, and some joined her course with little to no knowledge of slavery. “It’s all about will.”

Considering how the legacy of slavery continues to shape the lives of Black people today, Canada needs to confront its past in order to implement any substantial changes to address the economic, social, and political effects of racism on the Black population.

Black people in Canada are more likely to come from low-income communities, face more barriers to opportunities, and are more likely to face violence or die at the hands of a police officer. The COVID-19 pandemic provides more evidence of the 400-year legacy of slavery and anti-Black racism, as Black communities have experienced higher rates of infection and death.

“Once people understand this,” says Dr. Nelson, “then we can begin to have a proper conversation to change how Black people are disproportionately affected in society today.”

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