10 out of 1726: Confronting McGill’s colonial past and racist present

McGill lost 10 per cent of its Black faculty when Art History professor Charmaine Nelson left to take up a new post at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in July 2020. Of the 1726 tenured or tenure-track faculty at McGill, only 10 are Black—a figure unearthed in a report produced by Dr. Nelson and her students in her final undergraduate seminar at McGill titled “James McGill was a Slave Owner.” The report was released in June of 2020, during the wave of protests that swept across the world following the police murder of George Floyd. 

“I [was] 10 per cent of the black faculty,” Nelson said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “If people aren’t horrified by that stat, I don’t know what will motivate them. Enough is enough. What does it say if the university that thinks itself the best in Canada has reprehensible under-representation of Black and Indigenous people in 2020? What does that say? This is a university with a diversity hiring policy. Can we not agree that the policy is not working?”

Nelson is an art historian, the first and to this day only Black professor in the discipline at any Canadian university. She began teaching at McGill in 2003, has published seven books, won a slew of awards and distinctions, and amassed a body of work that has consistently expanded the horizons of the burgeoning but perpetually neglected field of Canadian slavery studies. After 17 years at McGill, Nelson will take up her new post as Canada Research Chair at NSCAD, where she will develop and launch the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery—the first such institute in the country. 

“Working as [Nelson’s] doctoral student, I’ve always been so impressed with how she manages to spin straw into gold,” Chris Gismondi, a Ph.D candidate at McGill currently researching the history of slavery in Upper Canada, said. “She is such a valuable resource because there are so few people in [the country] with a specialized knowledge of slavery in Canada.”

During her final year at McGill, Nelson was struck by the university’s silence on its historical connection to slavery in the lead up to its bicentennial—a state of affairs she finds all the more galling for the glaring nature of these ties. James McGill, the wealthy Scottish merchant whose posthumous 10,000-pound bequeathment allowed for the founding of McGill University in his name, both enslaved people and invested in the slave trade. 

To date, only three Canadian universities have joined Universities Studying Slavery, a consortium advocating for universities to confront their ties to slavery and racism. Some members, including Brown, Dalhousie, and the University of Glasgow, have commissioned extensive task forces to investigate their own connections to slavery. As of now, all McGill has done in addressing its history is hire two post-doctoral fellows to conduct research into the university’s links to slavery, with no decision yet on what the school intends to do with their findings. 

“Brown, Harvard, Glasgow, Dalhousie have done mega-studies that take usually three to five years to do well [….] It takes money to do this properly,” Nelson said. “McGill’s commitment so far has been two post-docs.”

Nelson believes that a reckoning with Canada’s history of slavery and anti-Black racism is long overdue. 

“Canadians are so good at saying, ‘It never happened here, it happened in the USA,’” Nelson said. “You can go from kindergarden to university in Canada and never have anybody say to you that slavery happened here.”

Canadians have patted themselves on the back for a purported moral superiority to their neighbours down south. During Black History month, schoolchildren are taught to see Canada as a sanctuary for enslaved African Americans arriving through the Underground Railroad. This historical description leaves out the fact that Black and Indigenous people were enslaved in what is now Canada for centuries, only ending in 1833—something that few Canadians know and fewer still have had the chance to study. 

Nelson’s research has shown that although people of African descent have been in Canada since the 1600s, their presence, as well as their enslavement, has been written out of Canadian history. Nelson believes that this erasure has stunted not only the study of Canadian slavery but also the development of a broader conversation about anti-Black racism in Canada. 

“The thing people need to understand [is that] James McGill [was] not just a fur trader, he was a slave owner,” Nelson said. “We know he enslaved at least […] two Indigenous children and three Black people, and he was a West Indian trader. He’s not just exploiting enslaved people here in Montreal. He was also knowingly exploiting enslaved people in slave-majority contexts, [like] the anglophone Caribbean, and he understood, of course, who was harvesting the sugar and making the rum. So that’s part of where his wealth came from.”

McGill’s reluctance to acknowledge its ties to slavery prompted Nelson to investigate the matter herself.

“What redress, what reparations should be made for that? But this seems to be a conversation [the administration doesn’t] want to have,” Nelson said. “So I [said] ‘you know what?’ I’m going to have that conversation with my students and we’re going to generate recommendations, not to replace what McGill should do, but to urge them to take it on in an official capacity.” 

That conversation took the form of a seminar which aimed to present a report that included original, archival scholarship on McGill’s ties to slavery and racism, and a list of Bicentennary recommendations for the school to address systemic racism within the university. 

“We did a lot of work with slavery in Canada and Montreal specifically, uncovering a history that no one really talks about,” Nicholas Raffoul, U3 Arts, a student who was at the seminar said. “One of our assignments was transcribing a bill of sale of an enslaved person. A lot of them were actually James McGill buying or selling an enslaved African or Indigenous person.”

Nelson faced institutional racism at every step of her career. Her time with the department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill was no exception. Nelson noted how the department created a hierarchy of the most important administrative roles, and decided to allocate positions based on seniority. 

“When it came to my turn, they jumped over me and went to get a white female colleague that was on maternity leave,” Nelson said. “They literally had to go find her in her house. They didn’t want me to be chair of the department.” 

Instead, Nelson was consistently pushed towards the role of Undergraduate Program Director (UPD), a role deemed less important within the department.

  “When I came up for full professor, the chair at the time said to me, ‘You don’t have enough senior [administration experience],’” Nelson said. “I was like, ‘well none of you have let me be GPD [Graduate Program Director] or the chair.’ Which is what they—my white colleagues—use in general, in order to be promoted to full professor. But they never let me sit in that chair.” 

She also asserts that her other administrative roles, which included running the Senate Equity Committee on Race and Ethnic Relations, were strategically ignored and undervalued within the department because they were primarily concerned with racial inclusivity and anti-racist practices at the university.

“It’s not written anywhere that the role of GPD is more important than UPD,” Nelson said. “It’s the people in my department that made that up and then constantly pushed me towards UPD and then, when I came up for promotion, used it as a way to say I didn’t have enough [administration experience]. So what, are you saying that I can never be a full professor because you guys decided I can’t be chair?”

Nelson thinks that her being outspoken on matters of race and gender equality played a part in the treatment she received within the department, as well as in how her work is perceived more broadly. 

“I have never been silent on any of these issues of racism and sexism that I experienced [in the department], and they don’t want to hear it,” Nelson said. “If I dare to speak honestly about my experience, they are implicated.” 

She alleges that this treatment is symptomatic of a pervasive attitude toward scholars-of-colour whose work is sidelined as subjective and unduly biased for focussing on issues of race.

“Are you objective?” Nelson said. “You are an embodied white person having a white experience in the world which you are claiming is universal. You are not objective either. You bring your own ideas to the job of chair as well.” 

Despite the surge of public interest in anti-Black racism over the summer, Nelson is doubtful about the prospect of change at McGill.

“There’s a pattern to the way that white Canadians typically respond to these moments, which is to speak in platitudes and misdirect our attention and to lay claim to progress or action that is not really progress or action,” Nelson said. “The barometer of anti-racist work being done has nothing to do with the good intentions of white people.”

For now, students will have to wait for Sept. 30, when McGill will release its “Plan for Addressing Anti-Black Racism” to find out if their concerns will be addressed.

“Is the moment different? I don’t think so,” Nelson said. “There was no plan, there was no goal, there was no timeline. McGill is beautiful at platitudes without a timeline. No goal, no timeline, nothing happens. If you don’t say at McGill we’re going to hire 100 black professors by 2025, you think they’re going to hire any?”

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