Institutional Histories of Canadian Slavery

tags: slavery, Canadian history, McGill University

Melissa N. Shaw is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University studying the university’s connection to slavery and colonization. In fall 2022, Dr. Shaw joins McGill’s Department of History and Classical Studies as an Assistant Professor. Her first book project is tentatively titled “Blackness and British ‘Fair Play’: Burgeoning Black Social Activism in Ontario and Grassroots Responses to the Canadian Colour Line.”

McGill University’s institutional history dramatically changes when it accounts for the fact that its founder, James McGill, was an enslaver and trader of enslaved Black and Indigenous people. Upon his death in 1813, McGill’s will revealed a bequest that led to the creation of McGill College in 1821. Following Dalhousie UniversityMcGill University is now exploring its historical connections to Black slavery. However, unlike any other institution of higher learning in Canada and beyond, McGill is taking unprecedented and pragmatic steps towards racial justice with its 2020 Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism. In doing so, McGill has shed light on histories of slavery and racism in Canada.

While increasing numbers of scholars acknowledge the prevalence of slavery in New France’s (present-day Quebec) colonial society, the overall complacent tone of the historiography dealing with Black slavery in Montréal is quite troubling. Some historians have argued that “Canadian slavery was more benign than elsewhere.” Others have focused on the fact that, when compared to plantation-based slave societies, enslaved people in Montréal represented a smaller percentage of the overall free white population.1 These descriptions do a disservice to Canadian history by failing to make clear the brutality of slavery as an institution—wherever it was present—and by not acknowledging how the history of enslavement shaped structural anti-Black racial violence and Black survival modalities in Canada.

For bonded people in New France—sold and purchased as commodities, there was no “pseudo” freedom. To be baptized as a Catholic or assumed to be treated well because a wealthy enslaver owned the enslaved does not change the fact that enslaved Black people had their labor exploited and no bodily autonomy. They could not engage in society in terms of racial or social equality. As historian Afua Cooper details through the life and death of Marie-Joseph Angélique in Old Montreal, enslaved Black people desperately fought for their freedom. An essential function of slavery meant that Black people had no legal right to decide their fate or the fate of their kin. White enslavers gave their own kin enslaved people as a valuable inheritance. Even though Black people were, as historian Harvey Amani Whitfield points out, unique individuals, their lives were controlled by their enslavers. For the enslaved, the quality of their precarious life was determined by their enslaver’s choice to regard or disregard their humanity as they saw fit. Art historian Charmaine A. Nelson notes that even though some argue that enslaved people were considered luxury “items,” this does not mean that these bonded people were treated luxuriously by their enslavers.

For example, Marie-Louise was an enslaved Black person in the home of James McGill, the founder of McGill University, since she was about five years old. Without any evidence, one graduate thesis written in the early 1990s surmised that Charlotte Guillimin, McGill’s wife, probably bought this young Black child as a “playmate of the children of the house,” and Marie-Louise “probably had to do some menial work.” However, a scant mention of Marie-Louise in a single historical record indicates that she was not bought to be a playmate for Guillimin’s two young boys. She was treated like enslaved chattel property.2 Before marrying James McGill in 1776, Gullimin made an inventory list of 32 items she claimed as her premarital property. She listed the enslaved girl as a “Negress” valued at 500 livres (between 21 and 22 pounds). She recorded Marie-Louise right before itemizing a cow, which Guillimin valued at 36 livres (under 2 pounds). Five-year-old Marie-Louise, a little Black child was the most expensive moveable property on Charlotte Gullimin’s list.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives