We are divorcing McGill from The McGill Tribune. And it’s about time our university changes its name, too.
As McGill entered its third century in 2021, it launched a $2 billion fundraising campaign celebrating its history and legacy as an institution. This campaign, however, illustrated the university’s continued indifference toward its violent, colonial, and racist origins. In June 2020, former McGill art history professor Charmaine Nelson, along with some of her students, released a 98-page research document entitled “Slavery and McGill University: Bicentenary Recommendations,” investigating James McGill’s history as a brutal enslaver and profiteer of the transatlantic slave trade. The document also issued recommendations for the university to begin confronting its violent origins and its ongoing systemic racism both at the student and faculty levels today.
As we have seen at Toronto Metropolitan University, which changed its name in response to widespread student activism urging the institution to stop celebrating colonial figures, it is possible for large universities to take steps to untangle themselves from their violent histories. Yet, we also recognize that name changes are not the be-all and end-all of social justice and redress. For example, McGill’s varsity sports team renamed itself the ‘Redbirds’ in 2019, dropping a name that caricatured Indigenous people. But this did not stop the university from engaging in a legal battle with the Mohawk Mothers, a group that is demanding there be an investigation into potential unmarked graves under the New Vic site.
Name changes are one small step, necessary but not sufficient in and of themselves. The Tribune will accompany its name change by continuing to hold ourselves accountable through our own journalism, creating more avenues for community engagement and diverse perspectives, and engaging with more student groups on campus.
As a newspaper, we have editorialized countless times on McGill’s persistent failure to create a safe and welcoming environment for Black, Indigenous, and racialized students and faculty, both in the lecture halls and on campus. We must supplement the progress made on the Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism set forth by the Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academic to rid McGill of its systemic racism. In its official land acknowledgement, the university fails to mention James McGill’s violent subordination of Indigenous children and Black people, such as Jack, Sarah, Marie-Louise, and Marie Potamiane, and one enslaved person whose name has not been uncovered. McGill frames its founder as a philanthropist, but hardly acknowledges that the donated fortune, the gift that ensured he would be our namesake, was amassed through the exploitation of enslaved people in Canada, the Caribbean, and the slave trade more broadly. His legacy persists, and Black and Indigenous faculty and students are still dramatically underrepresented in number and in the curricula of most academic programs, which fail to reflect demographic, methodological, and epistemological diversity.
The Tribune has in the past been guilty of institutional racism, and as we continue working towards redress and strive to eliminate all forms of institutionalized oppression, our Editorial Board feels it can no longer bear the name that so unapologetically upholds and honours these systems. Our Editorial Board’s hiring process had discriminatory barriers to entry that did not open doors to all, and our channels for ensuring equity and a safe working environment were not made adequately available. We have acknowledged The Tribune’s history of exclusion toward Black students, Indigenous students, and students of colour––voices needed for any paper to thrive. Since then, we have revised our Workplace Conduct Policy and application process, and aimed to remedy institutional underrepresentation across all levels. The work does not stop there, and only through continual steps toward redress can we call ourselves a newspaper of record.
Our mandate urges us to be vocal and critical about the systems of oppression persisting on our campus and around the world, centring our perspectives on the voices that journalism has silenced. In order to uplift these narratives, we must also recognize the privilege that allows us to comment at a distance, from a predominantly white and privileged anglophone university in North America. McGill, in its billion-dollar marketing campaigns, may be primarily interested in upholding the prestigious veneer of its namesake on an international stage, but as an independent student-led publication, we choose to reject the social capital that associating with McGill and its legacies may yield. If we cannot reject this name, we cannot in good faith stand behind any of the changes we have advocated for. As journalists, we choose to keep speaking truth to power instead of fearing it.