james mcgill

McGill University is named after a slave owner and people want his statue replaced with a tree

As many cities across Canada continue to face a reckoning over their racist names, histories and statues, one of the country's most famous universities is being forced to deal with its own uncomfortable roots.

McGill University in Montreal has consistently been rated one of the best in Canada, but it also happens to be named after slave owner James McGill

McGill was a Scottish businessman, philanthropist and fur trader who lived from 1744 to 1813. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada for Montreal West in 1792 and was appointed to the Executive Council of Lower Canada in 1793.

At the time of his death, he was one of the richest men in Montreal — thanks, in part, to the fact that he owned both Black and Indigenous slaves. 

A statue of McGill stands in front of the university in downtown Montreal to this very day, and both students and alumni are now petitioning to have it removed. 

"As we all hopefully know, James McGill was a slave owner who enslaved Black and Indigenous people and used the wealth gained by their exploitation to start McGill University," reads the petition, which calls for the statue to be replaced by a tree and has garnered close to 4,000 signatures to date.

"It can be any type of tree," it continues. "Any tree would be better than looking at James McGill."

The petition description, written by former student Hannah Wallace, also points out that the university's website omits the fact that McGill was a racist slave owner altogether, " instead romanticizing his boring life."

"James McGill, the man whose vision would lead to the creation of the University that bears his name, was born in Glasgow, Scotland on October 6, 1744, the eldest son of an ironsmith," reads the biography of McGill on the university's website.

"During his studies at Glasgow University, McGill was shaped by the values of the Scottish Enlightenment. Although he left university without completing a degree—a fact likely due to his family’s poor fortunes—his education instilled in him a lifelong love of new ideas, and a commitment to give serious thought to the beliefs and opinions of others, no matter how at odds they were with his own worldview."

There is not one mention of the word "slave" throughout the entire description. 

Calls for the statue of McGill to be removed are not new, but their renewal comes amid a worldwide movement against systemic racism following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on may 25. 

Residents and activists have been calling for the removal of countless colonial and Confederate statues as a result, including the John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal. 

But many say they want deeper change than just the removal of statues. Iyanu Soyege, the political co-ordinator of the McGill Black students' network, for instance, told CBC News her organization wants to see more Black students and faculty at McGill, public race-based data, and access to Black mental health and health professionals. 

Still, removing monuments that were erected specifically to honour the very men that helped create the institutions that systemically oppress People of Colour every single day would certainly be a start.

Lead photo by

Wikimedia Commons

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