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It’s your turn, McGill

“A Toronto university has demonstrated that it’s possible to shed unsavoury historical baggage by changing its name. I don’t normally recommend following Toronto’s example, but McGill would be wise to do the same.”

A Toronto university has demonstrated that it is indeed possible to shed unsavoury historical baggage by changing its name. I don’t normally recommend following Toronto’s example, but the institution in our city that jokes it’s the Harvard of the North (McGill) would be wise to do the same.

Egerton Ryerson, for whom Toronto Metropolitan University was once named, was a Methodist minister and superintendent of schools for Upper Canada. He was a leading advocate for education reform in the mid-19th century and was a principle force who led the development of school boards, textbook standardization and, perhaps most importantly, a free public education system. It’s because of these contributions that the university was named after him, given that he was the godfather of public education in Ontario.

Because of this expertise, Ryerson was asked to advise the government on the matter of Indigenous education. In 1847 he issued the Ryerson Report, which recommended that Indigenous children be educated in separate boarding schools, by religious orders, in English only, and in such a way that children would be trained for agricultural or industrial labour, which Ryerson considered to be the most appropriate vocations for Indigenous people. Though the residential schools weren’t instituted during his lifetime, they were based on his recommendations when they were implemented by the federal government roughly 50 years later.

If you can’t quite wrap your head around the idea that a man could be bright enough to advocate for universal, standardized, free education on the one hand, but not recognize he was laying the groundwork for cultural genocide on the other, well that’s institutionalized and systemic racism for you.

The road to Hell is, as they say, paved with good intentions.

If a Toronto university can change its name because the guy they’re named after came up with the philosophical foundation of the residential school system (though wasn’t directly responsible for them), then perhaps it is time for a Montreal university whose founder literally enslaved people — including children — for his own personal use, trafficked in enslaved people to settle accounts during wars of empire, and further built his immense fortune on an economic system whose foundation was slavery, to at least consider changing their name as well.

It should be very clear to the public at large (and especially the students, faculty and staff of the institution) that the money and the land that James McGill provided for the creation of the institution of higher learning that bears his name can all be sourced back to profits derived from slave trading and the use of slave labour.

McGill has made some tentative first steps in addressing the issue, but I can’t stress how modest it has been. Up until quite recently the university was still largely in denial about James McGill, arguing that he was simply a man of his times, rather than addressing the bigger issue (and implications) of slavery as Great Britain’s economic foundation at the time proto-Canada was beginning to take its modern form.

Not to mention it’s never a great look for a university to be rigidly uncurious about its past.

McGill is taking some baby steps in the right direction, but all too often it seems they’re being reactive rather than proactive. The school changed the name of their men’s sports teams after prolonged student-led protest, but it was also a cosmetic change that came about at a politically expedient time.

When McGill is proactive — such as their 2016 decision to relocate a commemorative stone that purports to indicate the location of Hochelaga — they did so without reviewing any of the scholarship pertaining to the location of Hochelaga that had been published in the century or so since the historic monument was unveiled. Had they read the exhaustive research done by Bruce Trigger (a McGill professor whose comprehensive research of the Huron-Wendat people led to him being given honorary membership in the Huron-Wendat nation), they would have discovered there is considerable doubt amongst experts that Hochelaga was located on the McGill campus. Indeed, the decision to locate the monument there had much more to do with contests of commemoration between Montreal’s French and English elites in the early decades of the 20th century than definitive proof of Hochelaga’s location.

In McGill’s effort to reconcile, they may have inadvertently obfuscated the historical record even further.

Worse still, they decided to relocate the monument toast directly across from the lower campus’ statue to James McGill, a man who enslaved Indigenous women and children.

One step forward, two steps back.

James McGill university
James McGill statue

While McGill may have ultimately decided to remove the statue of James McGill (largely out of concern that some understandably upset people might chuck his sorry bronze ass in the Saint Lawrence), this doesn’t add up to much, and feels a lot like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Some argue that changing the name of an institution amounts to erasing history. I don’t agree: people are going to wonder why the institution changed its name, particularly such a famous institution. While quietly removing a statue doesn’t invite much in the way of critical analysis, changing the institution’s name does almost by necessity. It’s much more of an opportunity to learn and to grow, which is what university is supposed to be about in the first place.

And if McGill’s admin really wants to make some headway on reconciliation, they might want to consider commemorating the people James McGill enslaved in addition to changing their name. McGill might also consider what Harvard University is doing about its legacy of slavery, and decide whether they might try to do better, given how often they like to compare themselves to that institution (and while we’re at it, McGill Admin might consider reading the Harvard Crimson’s position on BDS too).

But it would be best of all if McGill listened to their own scholars and students. You can read the McGill bicentennial recommendations for addressing the institution’s history of slavery that Dr. Charmaine Nelson and her students came up with here.

The time for change has come, and there is no shame in admitting the wrongs of the past. What is unacceptable and loathsome is to do nothing and continue pretending all that is despicable in our history is somehow different simply by virtue of the fact that we are not Americans. We cannot hide from history any longer. ■

Read more editorials by Taylor C. Noakes here.