Around 100 members of the McGill community rallied just north of the Roddick Gates on Aug. 1 to push for the removal of the statue commemorating James McGill—the founder of McGill University and slave owner. Protesters stood in solidarity with members from the Black Students’ Network of McGill (BSN), the McGill African Students’ Society (MASS), the Caribbean Students’ Society of McGill University (CSS), and the Black Law Students’ Association of McGill (BLSAM).
The demonstration began with a speech from Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Vice-President External Ayo Ogunremi and later President Jemark Earle. Both speakers decried McGill’s inaction against its colonial legacy and its failure to support BIPOC students in an academic environment of systemic anti-Blackness.
“The reasons that we’re all here today […] on this land that is now called McGill University are colonization, exploitation, and white supremacy, and everybody needs to be able to articulate that if we’re going to go anywhere,” Ogunremi said. “We are tired of being treated like we don’t exist. We are tired of being targeted for public execution by the police. We are tired of being targeted for harassment and exclusion by the university.”
Earle recounted his shock and disappointment when learning of James McGill’s racist history, which has yet to be publicly acknowledged by the university, except for an addendum on its “Meet James McGill” webpage. He denounced McGill for failing its Black students, most notably its failure to celebrate Black History Month until 2017. Earle made clear the university’s shortcomings through the demands listed in an open letter to the McGill administration, “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: TAKE JAMES MCGILL DOWN,” a document which partly inspired the protest.
“The ‘Take James Down’ campaign is not just about the removal of this statue,” Earle said. “The demands of the campaign are clear: A permanent physical memorial must be created to honour these [enslaved] people, on the backs of whom James McGill accumulated his wealth. All scholarships, chairs, prizes, and buildings bearing James McGill’s name must be changed to honour these people he enslaved. If these items are to retain their original name, they must clearly acknowledge James McGill’s role in entrenching slavery in Canada.”
Chief among the demands in the open letter is the establishment of a “well-funded Black Studies or Africana Studies department” at McGill. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, BSN President Heleena De Oliveira explained that the need for a Black studies department, as with many of the demands in the letter, have been articulated for over 40 years.
“Everything that [students of colour have] been asking for, we’ve been asking for literally since the ‘70s,” De Oliveira said. “The demands are not different. What we’ve been doing to garner their attention is not different either. We’ve been [holding] protests, we’ve been speaking out, we’ve been speaking to news outlets, we’ve done all those things. What changed and what has made [the McGill administration] start to listen to us is [external pressures], and as an institution they have to respond to what’s happening.”
De Oliveira explained that BSN had held a meeting with the Office of the Provost to discuss potential anti-racist measures on campus.
“As a result of that meeting, a plan was released on July 3rd by the provost to tackle systemic racism on campus,” De Oliveira wrote in a message to the Tribune. “The BSN [has] taken part in three focus group meetings with Angela Campbell and other members of the equity team for the creation of an anti-racism education module, much like the ‘It Takes All of Us’ campaign. And the BSN will shortly begin working with the administration and SSMU to ameliorate the policy on harassment and discrimination.”
De Oliveira remained hopeful about the protest’s potential to spark progress towards a better future at McGill.
“I think with the message that we sent, and with what the speakers said, […] we set out a clear precedent of what we want to see and what we will not [accept] from the administration,” De Oliveira said. “I thought that it was successful in that way.”
By 1:00 p.m., James McGill’s statue was covered in sticky-note messages written by protesters. The group marched towards the McCall McBain Arts Building, chanting “Take James Down,” which rang through campus.
A previous version of the article included a quote from De Oliveira stating that a meeting between the McGill administration and Black students resulted in no action from the administration. In fact, De Oliveira confirmed that an action plan against systemic racism was released. The quote has been updated. The Tribune regrets this error.