Taking down statue of James McGill is only one step in fighting systemic racism, students say

The petition is part of an international movement calling for the removal of statues of colonial, Confederate and other figures who critics say are symbols of systemic racism.

Petition launched last week calls for statue of university founder to be removed

A petition calling for the removal of a statue of James McGill on the university's downtown campus has gathered over 2,000 signatures as of Sunday.  (Paul Chiasson/La Presse Canadienne)

Black students at McGill University say taking down a statue of its founder — who owned Black and Indigenous slaves — would be an important step, but isn't enough to eradicate systemic racism in the institution. 

Iyanu Soyege, the political co-ordinator of the McGill Black students' network, says 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. 

"As Black students we are simply reiterating what students, faculty and staff have called for before our time," Soyege said. "It is long overdue." 

A petition launched last week by a former student calls for the statue of James McGill on the university's downtown campus to be removed has gathered over 2,000 signatures as of Sunday.

Hannah Wallace, who launched the petition last week, is calling for a tree to replace the statue. 

"James McGill was a slave owner who enslaved Black and Indigenous people," Wallace writes on the petition. "McGill University makes no mention of this on their website, instead romanticizing his boring life."

In an email to students on Friday, the university said it intends to research slavery and colonialism within the institution's history as part of its already existing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan. 

International mobilization

The petition is part of an international movement calling for the removal of statues of colonial, Confederate and other figures who critics say are symbols of systemic racism. Following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police in Minnesota, monuments around the world have been taken down or vandalized. 

More than 15,000 people have signed a similar petition to remove the statue of John A. MacDonald from Montreal's Place du Canada for his role in creating the residential school system that led to the deaths, disappearances and mistreatment of Indigenous children who were forcibly separated from their parents.

The John A. Macdonald statue in Montreal's Place du Canada has been repeatedly vandalized. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Montreal has recently taken steps to change some of its colonial toponymy.

Last year, the City of Montreal changed the name of Amherst Street, named after a British general who advocated the use of biological warfare, through blankets contaminated with smallpox, to kill Indigenous people. The street name was changed to Atateken, a term that conveys the idea of equality among people in Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language.

And in Toronto, Mayor John Tory has set up a task force to rethink certain street names. He said he was open to renaming Dundas Street, which pays homage to General Henry Dundas, known for delaying the abolition of slavery by 15 years in the British Empire.

'Putting a plaque on the side of these doesn't work'

Most public monuments in the Western world honour those who historically had social and economic capital, said Charmaine Nelson, a McGill art historian.

"A lot of these people being memorialized had a hand in imperialism, colonialism, trans-Atlantic slavery and genocide," Nelson told CBC Montreal's Let's Go

Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said she hasn't made a decision about the MacDonald statue.

McGill University art history professor Charmaine Nelson says these monuments often glorify people who 'had a hand in imperialism, colonialism, trans-Atlantic slavery and genocide.' (Submitted by Charles Michael)

Plante said "there's an opportunity to create a dialogue" about the role these historical figures played, and proposed putting a plaque near the monument to explain further context about MacDonald's actions. 

Nelson says that option overlooks the fact that public monuments literally put a white man on a pedestal, and force the viewer to look up at them, provoking a kind of hero worship. 

"Just putting a plaque on the side of these doesn't work," Nelson said. 

She said the statues could have an educational value if they were moved "to another type of institutional context that had the capacity to re-narrate them in a critical, anti-racist manner."

Nelson says the conversation should go further than simply removing the McGill statue. She says they should also be talking about renaming the university. 

"I teach at this university.… We have a lot of work to do. Monuments are part of that work," she said


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