Mcgill’s secret history
the stuff your school doesn’t want you to know...
Content warning: colonisation, slavery Occupying Tio’tià:ke
People have lived on what is now called the Island of Montreal for eight millennia. In Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language, the island is known as Tio’tià:ke. Prior to the arrival of French fur traders and missionaries in the mid-sixteenth century, the land on which Mcgill sits was home to the fortified village of Hochelaga. An estimated population of 3000 St. Lawrence Iroquoians lived there, but they soon disappeared as a result of local conflicts sparked by European colonization. Today, little remains of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians. Mcgill’s only official memorial to them is the Hochelaga Rock, located on Lower Field across from the statue of James Mcgill.
After the destruction of Hochelaga, Tio’tià:ke was inhabited by the Kanien’kehá:ka (‘People of the Flint,’ also known as ‘Mohawk’). They are a founding member of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance that unites several Indigenous nations in the region of the St. Lawrence Valley.
In the centuries following the arrival of the first European colonists, the Kanien’kehá:ka (like countless other Indigenous peoples) have been systematically marginalized and subjected to cultural genocide by the emerging Canadian state. Nevertheless, they continue to actively preserve their cultural heritage, ancestral territory, and political autonomy, despite ongoing colonial violence.
The land our campus occupies was never officially ceded by its original inhabitants. That’s why, several organizations, including the Daily, open their meetings by acknowledging that we live and work on the traditional territory of the Kanien’kehá:ka
Founded on anti-black violence
This hallowed institution was founded in 1821, thanks to a bequest from one James Mcgill, a Scottish businessman who had come to North America as a young man in order to pursue a career in the fur trade. Mcgill achieved considerable success in this line of work, a fact noted approvingly on our university’s website. What the site fails to mention, is that he later diversified his business to deal in lucrative plantation goods from the Caribbean - goods that were produced through slave labour. In other words, the fortune on which our school was founded was partly built on the backs of enslaved Black people.
Mcgill had also participated in the slave trade himself on at least two separate occasions. Additionally, after endorsing a parliamentary bill that would have abolished slavery, he voted against it in 1793.
In addition to profiting from the slave trade both directly and indirectly, Mcgill also held between four and five personal slaves. This may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to thinking of slavery as part of Canadian history; in fact, it was only abolished in 1834. Quebec’s local economy didn’t depend on slavery, so for people like Mcgill, holding slaves was essentially a mark of status and privilege.
Thanks to the erasure of Black and Indigenous stories from Canadian history, the identities of the people enslaved by Mcgill are not fully known. We do know, however, that they included women named Louise and Sarah. No memorials or statues of them stand on our campus.
Anti-gentrification activism next door
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you know someone who lives east of campus between University and Parc. Maybe you even live there yourself, passing The Word every day on your way to class and writing essays at Milton B late into the night. Either way, you’ve probably heard this neighbourhood referred to as “The Mcgill Ghetto,” a veritable extension of campus inhabited almost exclusively by students.
If so, it might surprise you to learn that this isn’t accurate in the least. Students make up only a small minority of the local population, vastly outnumbered by families, working professionals, long-term residents, and recent immigrants. Many of these people object to the designation “Mcgill Ghetto,” preferring their neighbourhood’s official title: Milton-parc.
Not only is this picturesque corner of Montreal not a ghetto in any sense of the word, but it has its own unique and fascinating history. In 1968, most of the neighbourhood was purchased by Concordia Estates Ltd., a company that planned to demolish it in order to construct a massive high-rise complex. This news sparked a wave of grassroots resistance from the community, and the next few years saw protests, rallies, meetings, and – in one particularly dramatic case – a sit-in resulting in dozens of arrests.
Largely thanks to the efforts of these local activists, some of whom also had ties to the Mcgill community, most of Milton-parc was saved. All that remains of Concordia Estates’ development plans are the interconnected apartment complexes at the corner of Parc and Prince Arthur. The momentum of the 1960s and ‘70s didn’t end there. By the late ‘80s, much of the neighbourhood had been reorganized into a series of housing co-ops, heavily subsidized by the government in order to keep rent accessible to low-income residents. Today, MiltonParc is home to one of the largest networks of cooperative housing in North America.