Around the world societies are reckoning with sometimes difficult parts of their pasts. Part of this reckoning has focussed on the many monuments glorifying figures that contributed to slavery, colonialism, exploitation, genocide and oppression. Statues are not erected to teach us about history, but are always a reflection of the society that has placed them there. Removing these statues goes a long way towards breaking with the past.
James McGill was a Scottish merchant who made a fortune in the fur trade, timber trade, and through land speculation in British North America. His household contained several enslaved Black and Indigenous domestic servants, and his fortune was created by the exploitation of Indigenous and French Canadian labour. Upon his death, he donated 10,000 pounds and a vast estate (in modern terms stretching roughly from boul. René-Lévesque to des Pins) to the Royal Institute for the Advancement of Learning to found a college. Although a charter was issued in 1821, no teaching was done at the present site of the campus until the 1850s. The person of James McGill is thus very far removed from the story of the formation of the university that bears his name.
The statue of James McGill, sculpted by David Roper-Curzon and installed in 1996, figures prominently in the path leading from Roddick Gates to the Arts building. It romantically shows McGill as a merchant adventurer, the very kind of image he liked to convey about himself, even though he made most of his fortune in the counting houses of Montréal rather than on the portages. It is at once unidimensional and glorifying, teaching the viewer nothing of who this person really was.
Historically, McGill University has been a symbol of Anglo-Protestant supremacy in Montreal. Such was this symbolic power that during the Quiet Revolution a student-led movement developed to transform McGill into a popular, Francophone institution to give French Canadians the opportunities that had until then been monopolized by the city's Anglo-Protestant dominant class. Today this struggle continues as Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour demand that the university take its commitments to diversity seriously.
As McGill enters its third century, it is high time for it to break with its oppressive past. Shedding the symbol of James McGill is an important step in this process. It is possible to be McGill without the person of James McGill, who after all contributed little to its history.
The AGSEM Executive Committee therefore supports the removal of the statue of James McGill and the continued reexamination of monuments and buildings named after similarly problematic individuals.