With the McGill bicentennial just around the corner, it is an important moment for the University to reflect critically on its past. This includes examining in a transparent and scholarly way McGill’s connections to slavery and colonialism.
Melissa N. Shaw, who is currently completing her PhD in History at Queen’s University, is one of two postdoctoral researchers appointed as a McGill Provostial Postdoctoral Research Scholar in Institutional Histories, Slavery and Colonialism. This article features Shaw and her work as she gets set to begin her postdoctoral appointment. McGill’s second Provostial Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Joana Joachim, was also interviewed by the Reporter recently.
In August, Shaw will start preliminary archival work to assess how Blackness, Indigeneity and whiteness informed McGill’s development from the 1800s into the twentieth century. As a scholar of Black Canadian history, Shaw is deeply concerned with the role of historical contingency when dealing with weaponized racial identities. She spoke to the Reporter to discuss her future work at McGill and why telling the stories of marginalized peoples is a necessary step towards reconciliation.
McGill University has decided to take steps in order to better understand its past and the connections the institution has to colonialism and slavery. As a scholar of Black Canadian history, what questions do you hope to answer through your postdoctoral research?
I’m hoping to look at how James McGill, as a businessman, benefited and profited from slavery and the connections his personal fortune – which was donated to create the University – had to the slave economy.
In its beginnings, McGill University was a medical college so I’m really interested to see to what extent the curriculum was informed by race science and how this could have impacted race culture and racialization in Montreal at the time. I think the medical college’s curriculum might offer insights into how race might have been constructed and taught and how this could have had an impact on students and society at large.
Obviously, everything will depend on what kind of information is available in the archives, but I think that will be an important part of my project.
The University will soon celebrate its 200th anniversary and felt this was a good time to dive into the more controversial parts of its past. Why do you think this was important?
James McGill profited from the sale of goods produced by enslaved people. He traded enslaved people and he enslaved people himself. Other donors, like Peter Redpath, made their fortunes through the suffering of enslaved people and the goods their enslavement produced. You can’t accrue wealth from the suffering and oppression of others and then celebrate it because it was donated to establish a university. Understanding at whose expense remains important.
How do you think your past research will inform this project?
When I was doing my PhD research, my supervisor always emphasized the importance of communities. The idea of plurality within a community, there are numerous communities, which brings numerous perspectives. I like to give the analogy of an accident. Somebody passes the scene of the accident on a bus, somebody else in a car and there’s a helicopter above. It’s the same accident, but everyone is looking at it from different vantage points and this has an impact on how they understand what’s happening. As a historian, you have to be mindful that what you’re looking at is not one truth, but an understanding from a particular perspective.
What got you interested in Black Canadian history?
I really love local history because you can find larger global dynamics at play in these stories. In the case of slavery, what happened in Montreal is very different than what happened in Halifax, but you can still see the global historical context at play, and I find that fascinating.
On a personal level, as a Black Canadian woman with Caribbean ancestry, when I was growing up and doing history in school, I always wondered why there were so few stories about the people who looked like me. The only time history books talked about Black people was when the Underground Railroad was mentioned, but I grew up knowing that so much was missing.
The silence about this part of our country’s history communicates a lot. Because if you’re silent, it’s like saying these stories and Black people are not worthy of being remembered, not valuable and important enough to write about. It leaves the normalization of whiteness as the status quo. This legacy is the unquestionable right to decide if and how to recognize the humanity of Black and Indigenous people.
So for me, working on Black Canadian history is about trying to find and rigorously analyze these largely ignored and silenced stories. It’s emotionally taxing and uncomfortable work, but it’s important in order to provide new perspectives and expand our narratives of what counts as Canadian history and who counts as a citizen – whose humanity is valued.
We often hear how slavery was so much worse in the United States than in Canada, does that play into why there’s so little said about Black Canadian history?
We don’t have the same history, but we have a similar history. The forms of the enslavement in both countries were different, but the function wasn’t that different. It was still about greed, and wealth at the expense of humans having their freedom taken away.
For me, it’s important not to think of enslaved people as numbers. When you look at history through numbers, it can sometimes give a skewed picture of reality. Numbers are important, but they aren’t the entire story and they can be distracting. Moreover, they deny that being a human being is a qualitative experience. People have feelings; they experience joy, pain, sorrow, excitement. Numbers can’t account for being a human being. By focusing too much on them, we’ve kind of built this narrative of Canadian exceptionalism, this idea that the practice of Black enslavement wasn’t as bad as in the United States because we didn’t have as many enslaved Black people or we didn’t have economies built around plantations, or that enslaved Black people were baptised by their enslavers.
And so with that kind of perspective and comparison conversation, you don’t actually understand what it was actually like for those people in that particular place and time to have their humanity and freedom to choose how they would live their lives completely denied. Or how their enslavement informed the establishment of a racial hierarchy in society, and who could be oppressed and denied their right to dignity and freedom with impunity.
You mentioned that your work could be uncomfortable. Why is revisiting our collective narrative so challenging?
People are sometimes very apprehensive about this kind of work. Anytime you study marginalized and racialized communities, it often triggers a sense of guilt and shame. But for me, it’s not about that. Shame and guilt are natural responses to recognizing injustice. However, when you focus on guilt, shame, or fragility, you’re indirectly refocusing on those benefiting from past harms when it should be about bringing back the focus on the people who were harmed. It’s also uncomfortable work because people sometimes think that if they acknowledge past harm, they’re somehow guilty of it.
Collectively, what we’re guilty of is not the harm that was done in the past but not talking about its legacy and doing something about it now. It’s about accountability and how we can learn from the past to make a better present and future.
What impacts would you say that this kind of research can have? Is it a step towards reconciliation?
It’s my hope and intention that these projects will lead to very rich research findings, but how that gets translated is hard to predict. There are several ways that this can translate into real change, maybe it’ll change curriculum at the University, departments, who is hired or a conversation about diversity that goes beyond representation and engages diversity of thought.
However, it’s important to be mindful of not holding on to potential outcomes too tightly because you can miss the lessons or the story the research is telling. These projects contribute to increasing awareness, understanding and accountability. Recognizing racial violence, resilience, and agency helps us think about how the past relates to present healing, so I do think they are a necessary step in reconciliation. You can’t have any meaningful change without understanding why that change is necessary.