Although McGill takes superficial strides toward inclusivity such as participating in a Black History Month and Indigenous Awareness Weeks, the university still refuses to address its colonial history and practices. The history of this university is intertwined with racism and the enslavement of Black and Indigenous individuals—a fact that must be addressed. To truly honour and respect Black History Month, McGill as an institution should openly acknowledge its colonial legacies. McGill’s ongoing refusal to address its racist past and present demonstrates an inability to grow and learn from its origins.
The university remains proud of its founder, James McGill, boasting about him in the history tab of their website, among other spaces. The web page commends aspects of his personal life, such as his choice to move to Montreal, his marriage, and even his generosity towards the orphan daughter of his late friend. Beyond this, McGill is praised for having a part in establishing a formal education system in Lower Canada.
James McGill enslaved Black and Indigenous people and the wealth he accrued from their exploitation was left in his will to fund a university, namely, McGill University. There is no mention of his slave ownership on the McGill website; the lack of acknowledgment on the university’s part about their founder as a slave owner leaves students and staff with nothing to grasp onto concerning the matter. As an institution that prides itself on being ‘diverse,’ McGill has a duty to students of colour to be open, transparent, and honest.
“James McGill enslaved Black and Indigenous people and the wealth he accrued from their exploitation was left in his will to fund a university, namely, McGill University.”
The administration’s silence has led to students and staff trying to fill in the blanks and force acknowledgment on the school’s part through classes and student movements. In Fall 2019, the Black Students’ Network proposed the Black Students’ Bill of Rights to create a framework of institutional support for Black students on campus. The online consultation form for the proposed legislation cited James McGill’s slave ownership as one motivation for the bill. However, rather than openly acknowledging and using the university’s fraught history as a point of contact for framing an open discussion regarding racism and colonialism at McGill, the university avoided such a public conversation, allowing feelings of resentment and unease to collect within communities of colour on campus. In addition to this student movement sparked partly by McGill’s history, professors have also been given the burden to address McGill’s racist legacies. A current art history seminar called Canadian Art and Race: James McGill was a Slave Owner: Slavery and the History of Universities spotlights the issue in an academic setting. The fact that McGill’s involvement with slavery is not talked about openly in the university is acknowledged and addressed in the course’s description.
As an international academic institution, the most responsible practice for McGill is to address its racist roots and remove the burden from students and staff who have been doing their best to accommodate those who deserve an explanation for the university’s racist history. Not only should McGill release a statement, they should also specify a plan to augment the university’s institutional structure in order to address colonialism moving forward. A plan to speak openly about their past while also vowing to pay reparations, having learned from the racist actions of James McGill is doing the right thing for its Black and Indigenous students.
Until now, Black and Indigenous students have not been given any kind of satisfying response to their concerns about McGill’s history. This plan would include concrete steps such as editing his biography on their website, a commitment to continued public acknowledgment of his involvement in the slave trade, and adjusting the university’s land acknowledgment to reflect this. The importance of a statement is not in shaming McGill for its roots, but in holding McGill accountable for its portrayal and praise of a man who enslaved people and profited from doing so.
Black History Month 2020 can be the month that the McGill administration defines their position as an institution that is willing to acknowledge and grow from their past. James McGill will never see true justice, but steps can be taken to show Black and Indigenous students that funding the university in no way erases the terrible things he profited from. Without a statement or acknowledgment from the administration, McGill is demonstrating its lack of growth, and students and professors will continue to do the work to make up for the administration’s shortcomings.