Commentary, Opinion

Erased by the administration: James McGill was a slave owner

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.

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  1. Spencer Whitemann

    This could haven been an interesting article had it even attempted to set the record straight, but instead it comes off as a meaningless rant about the past. From what I can tell 1. the university website should set the record straight and 2. Canada was a and still is racist.

    Here’s what I don’t understand, is why I should care? Yes, James McGill owned slaves, but so did many others. In fact, indigenous people of Canada have a rich history of slavery , should that “fact” be included on every indigenous website and institution? And what have black done to other races, now and in the past? Can you even answer that? It would seem that slavery, genocide and all kinds of horror are the product of being ignorant humans and race doesn’t by any stretch make you innocent.

    The fact that Canada was racist isn’t so hard to accept, but much more racism was white on white, but to hear you say we’re still racist today is laughable. Canada is one of the least racist countries in the world. If you think all racism should be eliminated then you’re dreaming as there will always be ignorant and arrogant people. But more importantly, you make it sound like somehow you’re still the victim. If so, how?

    What’s to stop you from starting a website that fully exposes our racist past and filling it with keywords linking it to McGill. This would allow you to take control of the content and tell the story in a way you approve. Why should McGill university do this for you? What would be in it for them other than to smear themselves for past actions of one man who acted the same as everyone else did at the time. The university and society have corrected these imbalances as well if not better than any other country. But you’re not satisfied until they change their site, then you won’t be satisfied until no one is racist (but you of course) then you won’t be happy until blacks rule the world.

    I tried to learn more about James and his racist past by googling it and I can’t find much other than it was more or less the norm at the time and of course natives did it and blacks from Africa had a hand in it too. You missed an opportunity to educate me about this. And you’re missing the greater point which I think I’ve already mentioned but I’ll say again in the off chance you’re too full of yourself to listen: 1. society isn’t racist 2. you’re not being repressed 3. you can take control of the narrative without McGill doing it for you 4. stop being a victim.

    Happy black history month!

  2. Historian Marcel Trudel’s 1990 Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français lists James McGill as the owner of 4 black and 2 indigenous slaves from the 1770s to the early 1800s. On the PRDH-IGD website, one can view baptismal acts relating to these slaves (see, for example, These acts form part of the Registre de la population du Québec ancien population database. This year, PRDH master’s student Cathie-Anne Dupuis is researching the mortality patterns of Quebec’s slaves, comparing them to the general population of Quebec at the time. Historical demography of Quebec’s black and indigenous slave population offers a useful starting point to quantify and understand the lives of Quebec’s most disadvantaged residents during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. — Lisa Dillon, Director, Programme de recherche en démographie historique

    • Carman Conrad

      Yes there is a history of slavery in Canada. Slavery in the past was practiced globally but has nearly been wiped out. With indigenous people slavery was normal practice. They went out fighting and raiding other tribes with the capture of slaves as part of the spoils of conflict. In Africa, the tribes captured other black Africans and sold them into the slave trade. Yes it was terrible for the slaves, but is it part of our practice in modern times? Why are there so many people trying to right all the wrongs of the past that are dead and gone?
      As far as race is concerned, there is only one race, the human race. There are variations within the race that have developed over time but genetically we all originate from the same source. Some humans are excessively focused on the characteristics of the variations. Others give those variations no thought and get along well with all. What is in your heart? Do you except everyone as the same value as you on the planet? We are all fallible and have sinned in this life. When we point our fingers at folks from the past we have no clue of what it was like to live back then. Hundreds of years from now will people look back on us and judge us as terrible and inadequate?
      Let’s quit wasting so much time on the mistakes of the past and get busy being the best we can be now. Love and respect to all.

  3. Thank you Mr. Whitemann and Ms. Dillon for very two very thoughtful articles. I’m a senior white woman trying my best to rethink the issues (inasmuch as I am able to). I always used to think that I was not a racist but in the past few weeks and months have I have just begun to understand what is meant by “white privilege.” Like many of my friends, I feel guilty and I’m not sure exactly how I can make things better. No matter how I try, I will never know what a black or brown person feels, nor will I be able to change the injustices they have suffered in the past. I raised my children to know that they are not better than anyone because of the colour of their skin, their religious or spiritual beliefs, the clothes they wear, or their advantages. Please tell me in concrete terms, how I can contribute to making things better in the future. I may not have much time left but I

  4. Oops! I forgot to finish my sentence: “…but while I’m alive I would like to do something that matters”

  5. Bill Skowron

    Shame on the university for superficial support for people of color when they could be making a material difference, like changing the name of a building.

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