McGill professor, students call on university to examine school's links to slavery

With the university’s bicentennial coming up next year, Prof. Charmaine Nelson is calling out a lack of representation among the institution's faculty.

With university’s bicentennial approaching, Prof. Charmaine Nelson calls out underrepresentation among faculty

Charmaine Nelson, an art history professor at McGill University, says only 0.5 per cent of the school's permanent faculty members are Black. (Submitted by Charles Michael)

Charmaine Nelson has taught in the art history department at McGill University for more than a decade. But being one of only 10 Black professors to hold a permanent position at the institution, she has never quite felt welcome. 

According to Nelson, only 0.5 per cent of the university's 1,700 faculty members are Black. That lack of representation has led to a lack of diversity in the school's curriculum and a lack of role models and mentors for students of colour, she said.

"The effects of that are very violent in terms of how my colleagues treat me and in terms of how my students treat me — in terms of not seeing me as a legitimate member of the faculty," Nelson said in an interview Sunday.

"And how could they?" she asked. "Because they never see people who look like me in those positions."  

Now, she and 19 of her students have 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. 

"But part of that is not just increasing the numbers but increasing the numbers while understanding that those groups have a different and more difficult and often violent experience of the space," said Nelson. 

Nelson is calling on the university to get the working group up and running ahead of its bicentennial anniversary next year.

Bicentennial celebrations offer opportunity 

The professor said she'd like to see McGill's bicentennial celebrations used as an opportunity to look back at some of the harmful roots the institution was founded on.

For instance, Nelson said, the university should look at ways of properly acknowledging that the school's founder was a slave owner.

"Our connection at McGill to slavery is so explicit it's not funny," said Nelson.

Founder James McGill had connections to slavery on multiple fronts, Nelson said.

Among other things, Nelson is calling on the university to look at ways of acknowledging that the university's founder, James McGill, owned Black and Indigenous slaves. (Paul Chiasson/La Presse Canadienne)

Not only did he enslave at least five people of Indigenous or African descent in Montreal, but he was also active in importing goods produced by slaves overseas. 

Chris Gismondi, a McGill PhD student who worked on the report, stressed that these financial ties to slavery still affect the university today, and he would like to see that acknowledged. 

"All the economic wealth produced from slavery never disappeared," said Gismondi.

"It still exists in institutions like higher education and government and legal systems and things like that. So I think addressing it isn't just sort of rewriting some wrongs from the past." 

University launching study 

In a statement to CBC News, the university says it is studying ways of better acknowledging the school's colonial roots. 

"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." 

McGill Provost Christopher Manfredi has recruited two postdoctoral fellows to carry out a study into the university's links with slavery and colonialism. The study will be supervised by various McGill faculty members, including Nelson herself. 

But Nelson says that is not enough. 

"They're not permanent faculty. So these are two wonderful scholars, but they're appointed only for a year or two, and then they're not connected to McGill anymore," said Nelson. 

"The other thing too that was unsatisfying about the announcement, as an end in itself, is that the university did not make explicit what they planned to do with the research generated." 

With files from CBC's Chloë Ranaldi