The police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 sparked global protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism, giving renewed momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement. In light of these events, McGill, an institution whose history is rooted in violence and enslavement, expressed its intention to put forward a ‘Plan for Addressing Anti-Black Racism’ by Sept. 30. The university’s administration has a history of stalling on equity-related issues. It took months of courageous activism by student leaders such as Tomas Jirousek for Principal and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier to come to a decision regarding the renaming of the men’s varsity team. Now, McGill must act quickly to implement its Black students’ demands, or else continue to actively contribute to the perpetuation of racism on campus. These demands start, but do not end, with taking down the statue of James McGill that stands by the Roddick Gates.
The #TakeJamesMcGillDown movement was started over the summer by Black students at McGill. Its three core demands call for the removal of the James McGill statue, the creation of a Black or Africana Studies department, and the establishment of a resource-based office for social equity that prioritizes funding for Black students. Other demands include, but are not limited to, providing additional funding for events like Black Grad and Black History Month, and amending the Harassment and Discrimination Policy. Failure to comply with these necessary and attainable demands, especially as McGill seeks to raise $2 billion through the Made by McGill campaign, would indicate a conscious commitment to upholding the racism that has plagued the school since its founding.
James McGill enslaved two Black women, one Black man, and two Indigenous children. We know this to be true, yet the McGill administration continues to publicly glorify its founder. Last year, the university announced the creation of two research positions to investigate McGill’s ties to slavery and colonialism, though the administration has not yet announced whether any action will be taken using this information beyond a self-congratulatory media campaign. While this paid work is crucial, it largely ignores the labour of Black members of the McGill community who have already started to uncover and communicate this history, such as former Art History professor Dr. Charmaine Nelson’s Bicentenary Recommendations.
Of course, the creation of research positions does not mean McGill will actually do anything substantial. During a roundtable with the student media, Associate Provost (Equity and Academic Policies) Angela Campbell did not indicate that any action would be taken following the conclusion of the researchers’ contracts, instead stating that the purpose of the new positions is to recruit and support post-doctoral students. Understanding our history means nothing if it is not paired with meaningful actions that seek to fulfill Black students’ longstanding demands for the respect and equitable treatment that they deserve.
Black students’ efforts in advocating for more equitable practices and creating safer environments for their communities are not new at McGill. The Black Students’ Network (BSN) has been working since last October to put forward a Black Student’s Bill of Rights. Other Black student groups, like the McGill African Students’ Society, Caribbean Students’ Society, and Black Law Students’ Association, hold and support events for Black community members, whereas the creation of two research positions are the best the university has offered so far. BIPOC students at McGill have and continue to be at the heart of some of the most crucial movements on and around campus.
Black students should not have to take on this challenging work themselves. All students, clubs, and associations must take action to mitigate the barriers that have harmed and unwelcomed Black students. Non-Black individuals must make space for Black voices, join them in confronting the administration, call out and correct the people that use racist language, and dismantle their own internalized biases. Students should support the #TakeJamesMcGillDown campaign by signing their open letter and showing up to future demonstrations. This must come with a determination to hold themselves and others accountable to ensure that this movement does not lose momentum, which would make it easier for the administration to ignore.
McGill cannot simply take back two centuries of complicity in upholding anti-Black racism on campus and beyond. But it can and must begin to make amends for its past by listening to Black community members and implementing long-overdue changes without delay.