It’s Time to Commission a Memorial to Slavery at McGill University

As McGill University celebrates its Bicentennial — and in the wake of global reckonings with racism — it is an opportune time to reflect critically and act on the university’s history, including founder James McGill’s ownership of Black and Indigenous slaves.

A slavery memorial would aid the university to live up to its own aspirations, as articulated in its Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism (2020-2025). While the plan commits to the addition of a plaque to contextualize the statue of McGill, adding labels to racist monuments does not support the communication of radically different visions of the past.

McGill students have advocated for systemic change for decades, and the recent defacement and removal of the McGill statue represents another peak in mounting frustrations.

Our recommendation is informed by our comparative research on slavery and Holocaust monuments and memorials. By examining the location, style, function, and patronage of monuments and memorials dedicated to slavery and the Holocaust, we found distinct differences in each topic’s place in Canadian public narratives. While community-created Holocaust memorials are present in museums and cemeteries, and the national capital, the same cannot be said with regard to slavery. 

There is a paucity of monuments and memorials to slavery in Canada. Exceptions include several to the Underground Railway in southern Ontario and two monuments honoring Toussaint Louverture, erected by Montreal and Quebec City Haitian communities. But these monuments do not address enslaved persons in Canada; they memorialize slavery elsewhere.

Historical plaques present Canada as a refuge, commemorating the Underground Railway and honoring abolitionists and community leaders who were formerly enslaved in the United States. The heroization of abolitionists is largely reserved for White Canadians. These plaques are formulaic and do not address difficult issues such as state complicity with slavery, “freedom” in the context of racism, and mourning.

The plaque for Chloe Cooley, one of the few commemorating an enslaved person in Canada, reduces her life to a footnote in the nation’s path toward abolition. In Montreal, a plaque by the Quebec government states Marie-Joesph Angelique, was “tried, hanged, and then burned” after being charged with arson. The plaque was stolen a week after its dedication.

In contrast, Canada’s National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, “Landscape of Loss, Memory, and Survival,” honors victims and survivors, and condemns racism and restrictive immigration. The monument’s placement near the Peace Tower, and its design by Daniel Libeskind using photographs of Holocaust sites by Edward Burtynsky, adds to its power and authority.

On a different scale, contemplative community Holocaust memorials encourage culturally meaningful customs, such as placing stones on graves as an act of remembrance.

Canada’s monuments and plaques marking slavery do not confer the legitimacy, or offer the intimacy, of these examples. 

We are inspired, too, by Holocaust counter-memorials that provoke questions about absence and forgetting. Since 1992, some 70,000 Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) have been inserted onto sidewalks across Europe to mark the last known freely chosen residence of Holocaust victims. The markers affirm victims’ agency and humanity by commemorating their lives, as opposed to their dehumanization and death. 

Beyond Holocaust memorials and counter-memorials, we see promise in anti-monuments, such as Paul Ramírez Jonas’s “Eternal Flame”(2020), which transforms an obelisk into a communal grill and picnic area to promote community and dialogue.

Compared to these innovative examples, large rocks with plaques — Harvard Law School’s Slavery monument and McGill’s Hochelega Rock which commemorates the pre-colonial Iroquois village — lack presence, imagination, and affect.

Hochelaga Rock: established by Parks Canada and located on McGill University’s downtown campus (photo by Patrick Sicotte, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The creation of a slavery memorial should use an explicitly anti-racist process. The work of choosing, designing, and placing the memorial should center Black and Indigenous communities, who should be compensated for their time, input, and expertise, particularly since racialized students and employees at McGill often carry the burden of educating others about racism without recognition.

The memorial should provoke questions such as: What are the implications for such a memorial for the descendants of the Black and Indigenous enslaved? How does a memorial acknowledge socially and politically enabled violence? Can a memorial function as a space of healing and contribute toward reparations?

The Black Student Network and the Indigenous Student Alliance have created a moving, research-informed, virtual memorial titled  Forgotten Names: The People Enslaved by James McGill. However, this video is not visible on any official McGill website.

Our call for a slavery memorial is personal for each of us. Simone Cambridge, a Black Bahamian newcomer to Canada, is invested in honoring the legacies of Black and Indigenous enslaved peoples, finding parallels in her own heritage. She contributed to the Slavery and McGill University Bicentennary Recommendations, which proposed a slavery memorial over a year ago, and is an advisory board member of the Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery.

Shelley Butler, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, empathizes with the need to find meaning amidst loss and is concerned that Canada is willing to invest in comfortable commemoration: The Holocaust happened “out there,” not on Canadian soil.

A memorial to slavery at McGill does not constitute concrete change. But, monuments and memorials globally have become lightning rods for activist-led discussions and demands for justice, which could help McGill become more inclusive and reflexive.

Whereas national monuments tend to crystalize feel-good values, a university memorial should strive to be more difficult. Less contained by a national frame, a future memorial should bring siloed subjects such as transatlantic slavery and settler colonialism into conversation, spurring new understandings and profoundly felt institutional change.

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