Researchers piece together the lives of people enslaved by James McGill

James McGill donated the land where the university bearing his name now stands.

But he also owned seven enslaved people: two of them Indigenous children, and five people of African descent.

Professor Charmaine Nelson and her students have been doing research into the lives of these seven people, who had no birth certificates or identity papers.

“Piecing together their lives without going through the slave owner is almost impossible,” says Nelson, an art historian.

“The documents you find for them are usually documents generated by the slave owner, and they’re usually documents about the economics of holding that person in bondage.” 

According to the group's research, one of the enslaved Indigenous children was called Marie, and the other remains anonymous to this day. Both died around the age of 10. 

"While the harsh conditions of enslavement in Canada almost always shortened the life span of the enslaved these two Indigenous children died at an exceptionally young age disputing any assertion that James McGill may have been a 'good' or 'benevolent' slave owner," the research reads. 

McGill's other slaves were of African descent. Those documented in the research include: Marie-Louise, who became McGill's property through his marriage; Sarah Cavilhe, who was likely purchased when Marie-Louise became sick; and Jacques, who outlived McGill and was left to his stepson. 

The group's research took on a new meaning this spring, when the Black Lives Matter movement suddenly picked up a lot of steam after the police killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd—reviving the debate about McGill’s name here in Montreal, too.

“The end of our class sadly intersected with the murder of Mr. Floyd in Minnesota and the increasing news about the differential impact of COVID-19” on Black, Indigenous and Latino people.

So the students, she said, “could see in real time the way that the anti-Black racism of the period of James McGill had not left us—it had just changed form.”

Despite the difficulties of doing the research, the group came up with almost 100 pages’ worth of information. They’ve published the results on a website Nelson runs, blackcanadianstudies.com.

Digging into such an awful history is not easy, Nelson says.

“These are brilliant and dedicated students who deserve a lot of praise for this work.” 

Now that they’ve gotten more information, the group would also like to see some form of redress. Their suggestion is for McGill to name a space on campus after the seven people whose lives they learned about.

McGill hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment about whether it will consider the idea.

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