McGill students rally for removal of founder’s statue on campus, citing ties to slavery

About 100 McGill students gathered on the university’s campus on Saturday to call for the removal of founder James McGill’s statue, arguing that as a slave owner, he should not be honoured in this public space.

“We are standing in front of a statue of James McGill so that those who come after us don’t have to,” said Heleena de Oliveira of the Black Students Network of McGill.

James McGill, originally from Scotland, enslaved at least five people of Indigenous or African descent after he moved to Montreal.

The protest is the latest action in a movement calling for McGill to address its colonial history and issues of systemic racism.

In July, McGill art history professor Charmaine Nelson published a document co-written with a number of students demanding that McGill take more concrete steps ahead of its 2021 bicentennial.

Students also launched a petition in June calling for James McGill’s statue to be removed.

Students gathered on Saturday to make their voices heard and call for change. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Last week, Nelson spoke out about her experience as one of a handful of Black faculty teaching at the university. According to Nelson, only 0.5 per cent of the university’s 1,700 faculty members are Black.

She and 19 of her students released a 97-page report outlining McGill University’s colonial roots and highlighting the struggles that staff and students who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour still face today. 

The report includes several recommendations, including the creation of a working group to look at issues of race at the university, as well as better representation of — and better services for — students of colour.

At the protest, students called on McGill to acknowledge its colonial past and make efforts to diversify its staff.

Aisha Manneh, left, said she wants to see more diversity on McGill’s teaching staff, particularly in the African studies program. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

“I’ve had two black professors in six semesters at McGill and they were both in the African studies program,” said Aisha Manneh.

“To be in African studies and to have professors who don’t even look like me. To have British men teaching me about my history and my continent, it just feels very intentional,” she said.

She said she’s witnessed racist comments from professors, but feels the university hasn’t addressed it.

“The university doesn’t acknowledge it, doesn’t do anything about it, so I just feel that there’s so much work to be done.”

McGill University did not immediately return CBC’s request for comment.

Earlier this week, in response to Nelson’s report, McGill told CBC in a statement that the university said it is launching a study into the university’s links with slavery and colonialism.

“Like many men of his era and of his socioeconomic class, James McGill had connections to slavery and colonialism,” the statement says. “This is not a connection that our university is proud of, but it neither should nor can be ignored.”