Historical Legacies, Black Canadian Slavery, and Institutional Histories

1909-1910 class in school built by fugitive slaves, Ontario, Canada. (Wikimedia Commons)

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 University, McGill 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.

Since Marie-Louise was considered chattel property, Gullimin felt no obligation to treat her with familial or human regard. Even though Gullimin had enslaved Marie-Louise since childhood, she and her husband left Marie-Louise at the Hotel Dieu hospital to spend the last three months of her life sick and alone. Marie-Louse passed away at twenty-three years old. Guillimin felt compelled by some moral code to sponsor Marie-Louise’s baptism as a five-year-old child. Yet, this moral code did not inspire her to take care of a person she saw daily and who lived with the McGills from age five to twenty-three. She grew up in the McGill household from a child, teenager to a young adult. The entire time, Marie-Louise was treated like a slave by members of the McGill household.

In this Canadian slave system, like many others across the Atlantic, there was no assumption or expectation of care for enslaved Black people. Marie-Louise was considered expendable chattel property. When she became ill and thus no longer able to perform domestic labour, her enslaver James McGill purchased another enslaved Black woman, Sarah, to replace her. The average life span of an enslaved Black person in Canada was 25.2 years. Marie-Louise’s ill-health and eventual death in her early twenties show us that wealthy enslavers, like James McGill, did not treat or feed well the people they enslaved. They were not required to see or treat enslaved people as human beings. They staked their privilege of white identity on this fact. Examining the construction of whiteness and its normalization in Montréal can help illuminate ostensible white benevolence contradictions.3During the 1850s, some white Canadians fought for the abolition of slavery but did not endorse racial equality. According to the dominant historical narrative, Canada was the Promised Land—a place devoid of anti-Black racial violence. One historian claims that, even though Sarah was enslaved, he still had “no doubt” that she was “treated well in the McGill household.”4

One of the critical elements of accurate historical analysis in my work is to avoid cloaking racial violence in kindliness. It is imperative to be aware of the power relationships in places of enslavement. Enslaved people could be forced to contend with decades-long sexual exploitation.5Another enslaved person in McGill’s home, a Black man named Jacques, was about twenty years younger than McGill’s wife, Charlotte Guillimin. What compelled Gullimin to make special provisions for Jacques in her will before she died in 1818? To assume kindness in a system of exploitative power dismisses the harm enslaved Black people could and did experience. This is why the stories of Marie-Louise and Jacques are so important to highlight. They reveal the intricacies of slavery in Canada and the links to McGill University— topics that are too often overlooked in mainstream historical narratives.

Black people have lived in truths of harmful experiences that have resonated unchecked in our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits for generations. While our souls have never been for sale, our multilayered trauma keeps being overshadowed and minimised by white benevolence or lack thereof. Investments in white supremacy abound unchecked. I am committed to sharing these stories as a Black Canadian woman of Caribbean descent,. As I delve further into institutional histories, slavery, and colonialism, these emotional and social truths will continue to inform how I observe, think, analyze, speak, teach, and write about race and racialization in Canada. I converse with others to generate a better understanding of anti-Black racial violence. I welcome others working toward solutions that bring true healing that re-centers those harmed by racial injustices. My hope is that we can do justice to the memories of enslaved people like Marie Louise. She died alone as an unprotected and abandoned twenty-three-year-old enslaved young Black woman. Her story matters.

We can learn how to hold intellectual and intuitive space to think outside of higher education’s cloistered privilege to see her life clearly. Then, truthfully analyzing this racial violence and its legacies of oppression with integrity, both in our methodologies and mindsets, we can understand the particularities of a Canadian society that devalued her humanity but highly valued her labour and body as rightful chattel property. Marie Louise was always owed our time, consideration, protection and care.

  1. Frank Mackey, Done with Slavery: The Black Fact in Montréal, 1760-1840 (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010).
  2. Maureen Elgersman, Unyielding Spirits: Black Women and Slavery in Early Canada and Jamaica (Crosscurrents in African American History; v. 6. New York: Garland Pub., 1999).
  3. Jacqueline Riddle, “Uncovering Slavery and Empire: Six Views of Montréal in 1830,” in Charmaine Nelson. Ed., Legacies Denied: Unearthing the Visual Culture of Canadian Slavery (Montréal: C.A. Nelson, 2013).
  4. Stanley Brice Frost, James McGill of Montréal (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995).
  5. Thomas A. Foster, “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men Under American Slavery,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 20, no. 3 (September 2011).
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Melissa N. Shaw

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.” It explores the understudied, informal everyday acts of resistance Black Canadian women crafted to fight anti-Black racism during the interwar period. Dr. Shaw’s work and writing have been published in Histoire sociale/Social History, Journal of African American History, Race & Class, and Slavery, Memory, Citizenship. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaNShaw.

Comments on “Historical Legacies, Black Canadian Slavery, and Institutional Histories

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    Quite informative read: it shows how perversive slavery was in Canada and the perennial cruelty slavery was/is everywhere people are exploited.

    Canada was never is the “Promised Land” we have been led to believe!

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