Contested Commemoration Montreal History

McGill & Slavery

Expo Montreal aims to shine a light on under-examined aspects of Montreal’s history in relation to contemporary social issues. With this in mind, it is appropriate to open with a cold dose of reality: Montreal has a history of slavery, and McGill University, arguably Canada’s best known and most prestigious institution of higher learning, was founded by a man who owned, purchased and profitted off of slaves.

While these facts have been known for some time, it’s only recently that there has been much interest in doing anything consequential about it. A petition has been started to remove a statue of James McGill from the university’s lower field, though anti-racist activists and academics would also like the university to better acknowledge this particular aspect of McGill’s life.

Recent scholarship has shone a light on this troubling aspect of our history, and though this may be a bitter pill to swallow for those who would prefer to romanticize our past, reality and truth are always preferential to fiction and falsehoods.

The recent call to remove the statue of James McGill from the lower field of the eponymous institution is based on the fact James not only enslaved people within his own home but was also directly involved in (and profited from) an economic system built on slavery. His fortune was made on the backs of enslaved Black and Indigenous people; women, men and children. 

This is not an abstract or figurative statement: there are records—this is a documented history irrespective of whether large institutions, pundits or the political class wish to acknowledge it.

This is not revisionist history either: longtime Montreal Gazette historian Edgar Andrew Collard wrote of McGill’s involvement in slavery back in the 1950s. The institution knows, they would just prefer not to mention it. James McGill is well commemorated: in the university’s name, in the name of a research chair and a bookstore, a Metro station and two streets. He’s buried on university grounds and has a statue in his honour there too.

By contrast, there is no monument—no commemoration of any kind in fact—to those people he enslaved, or the slavery-based economic system from which his fortune was derived.

Pulling on this thread reveals that much of the global economy at the time—particularly the economies of France and England during the eighteenth century—used industrial slavery as their primary economic engine. Just because industrial-scale chattel slavery wasn’t as widespread in Canada as it was in the American South or the Caribbean doesn’t mean Canada’s history is slavery-free.

Removing the statue of James McGill may provide the necessary catharsis, but this still doesn’t solve the greater problem that Canada’s arguably most prestigious university is named for someone directly involved in slavery and that most people are still ignorant of this fact.

That said, keeping the statue won’t solve this problem either. An unorthodox solution will be presented at the end of this article. In the meantime, let’s consider what the historical record has to offer.

The Louis Delongpré portrait of James McGill, Ca. 1800-1810

James McGill & Slavery: historical context

The historical period we’re scrutinizing is the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, specifically 1763 to 1841. This range is nearly the entirety of the British colonial period of Canadian history, spanning from the Seven Years War (1756-1763—marking the transition from the French to English/British colonial periods) to the Act of Union (1841—the creation of the Province of Canada, Confederation’s immediate political predecessor). James McGill lived during this era of human history; born in Scotland in 1744 he emigrated to Quebec shortly after the Conquest in the 1760s. He was present in Montreal to negotiate the town’s surrender to the Americans in 1775 during the American War of Independence.

As a merchant, trader, settler and colonizer McGill participated directly in an economic system founded on the slave trade and the seizure of land, resources and territory from Indigenous people on a global scale. During McGill’s life, Great Britain was the unquestioned world leader in these respects.

To say that slavery was commonplace in British North America during McGill’s life is a bit of an understatement: it was the economic engine of the global empire he was a proud serving member of. In his excessively delicate biography of McGill, historian Stanley Brice Frost indicated that slavery was ‘doubtless known to him’ and that McGill was a man of the 18th Century, not the 20th.


The traditional school of thought argued slavery was largely avoided in British North America because it wasn’t economically viable or necessary (i.e unlike the tropics and the American South, Canada didn’t have a plantation economy requiring large workforces). Further to this, it has been argued the majority of enslaved people in Canada worked as domestics, implying better treatment; slavery-lite.

This idea falls apart when you consider the fate of Marie-Joseph Angelique.

There are several problems with this interpretation. First, even without plantation slavery Canada’s economy would nonetheless have been entirely integrated into a global economic system based on slavery. Merchants like McGill likely traded beaver pelts for tobacco, sugar, coffee or cotton cultivated and harvested by enslaved workforces. Second, the point isn’t so much how many slaves there were or what the enslaved people did, but rather that they were enslaved in the first place. 

Though slavery was outlawed in British North America as of 1833-34, abolition did not result in immediate and unconditional emancipation. Slavery in what became Canada may have persisted until the end of the decade or possibly into the early 1840s.

James McGill passed in 1813, leaving an endowment to create an institute of higher learning that included his country estate and farm, Burnside. The university that stands today was founded in 1821 and is arguably Canada’s best known.

An engraving of McGill’s ‘country’ home, Burnside by John H. McNaughton (dated to 1842 it may be a copy of an earlier image of the estate)

The people enslaved by James McGill

McGill was involved in slavery in several ways. For one, he enslaved people directly and used them as domestic servants. Two, he traded in goods derived from slave labour: tobacco, sugar, cotton etc. James McGill was directly involved in an international economic system built on chattel slavery, indentured servitude and the African slave trade. Third, he was also compensated for his involvement in slave-trading to settle war debts on behalf of the British colonial government.

Exactly how many people were enslaved or trafficked by James McGill is unclear and complicated both by a paucity of details and a multitude of inconsistencies in the historical record. Historian Marcel Trudel indicated McGill may have enslaved as many as seven people, while more recent scholarship by Frank Mackey indicates the number was likely five, given one enslaved woman was known by three different names. Dr. Charmaine Nelson, who recently completed an exhaustive research project on the subject, has also confirmed McGill’s total slave count as five. They are:

  1. an Indigenous girl aged 10, said to have died in 1778
  2. an Indigenous girl named Marie of about the same age who died in 1783
  3. a woman named Sarah, aged about 25 when bought by McGill in 1788. Sarah was a free woman by 1805 and passed four years later. Mackey’s interpretation of the historical record indicates Sarah was likely also known as Marie-Charles and Charlotte at different periods of her life
  4. a Black woman named Marie-Louise who died in 1789
  5. a Black man named Jacques, also known as Jack, who is said to have died in 1838 at the age of 80

McGill was also known to have been involved in the indirect sale of four Indigenous people. In his 1995 biography of James McGill, longtime McGill University history professor Stanley Brice Frost admitted only to the purchase of Sarah in terms of McGill’s direct involvement in slavery, but also mentioned McGill was indirectly involved in the sale of four enslaved people. In this latter case, the Department of Indian Affairs of the Province of Quebec (1763-1791 version) compensated McGill for money he had paid out to one Jacques Lefrenier, who had purchased four Indigenous people to offer as compensation to Indigenous allies for losses they incurred during the American War of Independence (1775-1783).

Complicating Matters

Canada’s history of slavery suffers from being both poorly understood as well as being particularly complicated. It is known that slavery was practiced by some Indigenous nations at various times, both before European colonization began and during the colonial period prior to Confederation in 1867. Though Indigenous nations did not practice slavery on an industrial scale—such as in the European plantations of the West Indies or in the American South—historical evidence suggests some Indigenous nations did practice chattel slavery (i.e. an enslaved person is forever a slave, as are their descendants). A fascinating account of life as a slave of an Indigenous nation was provided by John R. Jewitt, who was enslaved by the Nuu-chah-nulth (formerly known as the Nootka) from 1802 until 1805 in an act of revenge for past transgressions by European traders. In this particular situation, Jewitt was both slave to the ‘king’ of the Nuu-chah-nulth (his term) and was given a slave of his own during his captivity (Jewitt would escape his bondage with the aid of a chief from a competing Indigenous nation).

According to Trudel most of the history of slavery in Canada occurred during the French colonial period, and Trudel estimated approximately 4,200 enslaved people in the land that would become known as Canada. Bringing this history to light in 1960 earned Trudel few friends in Quebec, as the traditional school of thought was that slavery was introduced to Quebec by the British. Indeed, even today this history is denied by people who have a responsibility to know better, such as Quebec Premier François Legault. Trudel indicated 3,600 enslaved people in New France in 1759, of whom over 1,100 were Black and 2,500 or so were Indigenous. Just over half of all enslaved people at this time would have lived in Montreal, which then had a population of about 8,300. If enslaved people were included in population counts, and the above figure is accurate, about 22% of Montreal’s population at the end of the Ancien Regime was enslaved.

That’s more than one in five people.

To be sure, slavery was also practiced during the British colonial period: United Empire Loyalists brought the people they enslaved with them as they fled the new American republic to what remained of British North America. 

Slavery during this colonial period wasn’t exactly a black and white affair: enslaved people were almost exclusively either Indigenous or Black, but not all Indigenous or Black people living in proto-Canada were enslaved. Moreover, though they were far, far fewer in number, some Europeans were enslaved by Indigenous people.

In addition, the abolition movement began growing into a serious political movement in Britain in the 1770s, roughly around the same time as the American Revolution. That the Americans maintained the institution of slavery may have encouraged the growth and development of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain and its colonies. Early legislation prohibiting trading in slaves in Upper Canada was introduced in 1793, and a series of judgements made in Lower Canada around the turn of the 19th century made it possible for some enslaved people to gain freedom through the court system. Slavery during this time was something of a legal gray zone: public disapproval of the practice was growing and this was beginning to influence the courts. James McGill owned slaves at a time when the practice was falling out of favour, but still considered a status symbol for the very wealthy. McGill was no social reformer, despite his vast wealth and reputation. At the end of the day, the rich always protect their own.

James McGill statue on McGill Campus after student protest August 1, 2020. Photo by Verity Stevenson/CBC Montreal

Contested Commemoration

So, with all this in mind, what to do about McGill?

The students who demonstrated August 1st want the statue above removed, indicating that, as a slave owner, James McGill should not be commemorated.

Removing the statue may provide the necessary catharsis, however, this is just one of several different ways by which McGill is commemorated both within the institution on its campus.

It would be unfortunate if the university removed the statue and did nothing else. As Dr. Charmaine Nelson (and her students) illustrate here in this comprehensive document, there are myriad ways by which the university can address both James McGill’s involvement in slavery as well as the problems of racism, systemic discrimination and inadequate representation on campus.

That said, an unorthodox solution is to keep the statue and rename the university. The reason for this is that the institution’s name is far more visible than its lawn decorations, and that the institution is much more than a plot of land and a sum of money bequeathed by an 18-century merchant (and this is quite literally all James McGill ever did for the institution that bears his name). If you’re not convinced of this argument, imagine Peter Sergakis, Conrad Black or W. Brett Wilson left land and money to start a university on the condition the institution be named after them. To his credit, James McGill apparently did not want this for himself.

Keeping the statue can take different forms. As an example, it might be preserved in a museum to demonstrate how an artist of the late-20th century attempted to balance the personal history of James McGill with the institution he founded and its contemporary values and goals (this is apparently why the statue, crafted in 1996, is not on a pedestal and noticeably smaller than human form). Alternatively, the statue might be left where it is and students encouraged to deface it as they see fit. This would allow many cathartic actions to take place, as opposed to removing the statue completely. As we can see from Verity Stevenson’s photo above, students can reclaim the statue for their own purposes.

Regardless of what McGill University decides to do, there should be a monument to the people James McGill enslaved, and it should be installed in a prominent location on the university’s downtown campus. Whatever form it takes, it should thoroughly acknowledge James McGill’s involvement in slavery and the fact that the eponymous institution of higher learning owes its creation to funds made off the backs of Black and Indigenous people. Creating a new monument – and offering a space to consider this history and reflect on its implications – would be more valuable than eliminating the statue by itself. Though removing statues does not – as some pundits hysterically exclaim – erase history, it might make the less palatable aspects of history easier to ignore.

Further Reading

  1. Slavery and McGill University: Bicentenary Recommendations – Charmaine Nelson and Student Authors
  2. Black Then: Blacks and Montreal, 1780-1880 – Frank Mackey
  3. Done With Slavery: The Black Fact in Montreal – Frank Mackey
  4. Black Racialization and Resistance at an Elite University – Rosalind Hampton
  5. “To Be Sold: A Negro Wench:” Slave Ads of the Montreal Gazette 1785 -1805 – Tamara Extian-Babiuk
  6. Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Centuries of Bondage – Marcel Trudel
  7. The Hanging of Angelique – Afua Cooper