Prominent Canadian scholar, author and public policy expert Brian Lee Crowley is denouncing calls to rename McGill University over claims of “violent, colonial and racist origins” as “absolute nonsense.”
Last week, student paper The McGill Tribune announced it was dropping “McGill” from its name, and called on its university to follow suit.
“McGill frames its founder as a philanthropist, but hardly acknowledges that the donated fortune, the gift that ensured he would be our namesake, was amassed through the exploitation of enslaved people in Canada, the Caribbean, and the slave trade more broadly,” wrote The Tribune’s Editorial Board.
In an interview with True North, Crowley, who studied at McGill, described calls to rename the institution as “absolute nonsense.” He added that those advocating for the move “claim that they’re acting on behalf of morality and a better understanding of history. And they know nothing of history and even less of morality.”
“They are ungrateful vandals who are denying the great institution that James McGill helped to found with his own money, which has served literally centuries worth of Canadians and people from all around the world.”
Crowley says that while James McGill was a slave owner, the latter was “completely legal and normal in his time, completely accepted by his peers.” He added that Mr. McGill “was a member of a society and a culture that ultimately for the first time in history abolished slavery.”
“There is no other example that I’m aware of in the history of the world in which a country that benefited from slavery made a conscious decision to give it up, and not only to give it up, but to then spend enormous resources combating the slave trade.”
This is not the first time that The Tribune and other woke student activists have called for the cancellation of James McGill. The University removed a statue of its founder in July 2021 amid demands that it be replaced by a tree. Before its removal, the statue had also been the subject of vandalism.
McGill has also recently renamed its sports team, the Redmen, to the “McGill Redbirds and Martlets” in 2020 amid students finding the former name to be offensive to Indigenous peoples.
However, Crowley believes it’s unlikely that McGill University will follow in the footsteps of Ryerson University, which changed its name to Toronto Metropolitan University amid accusations that Egerton Ryerson was responsible for the residential school system. Crowley says a McGill name change would anger alumni, including himself.
“If (the name change) does happen, I think there will be a reckoning later on. I can’t imagine that the alumni of McGill, on whom McGill depends for quite a lot of money, would be prepared to go along with this,” he said.
In an email to True North, McGill said that “many universities are presently confronted by the need to acknowledge, with humility and honesty, some historical facts within their own past and within the histories of those who have shaped these institutions. Our university is no exception.”
“McGill University recognizes that the wealth leading to its establishment was derived, in part, from James McGill’s engagement in the colonial economic system and the transatlantic slave trade. The University has taken steps to recognize publicly the complexity of his life, including through our website.”
Crowley says he has no issue with McGill being more transparent about its founder and his ties to slavery, but says, “the idea that we should be embarrassed by him, that we should cancel him, that we should remove him from the historical record, is I think completely unacceptable and completely contrary to the quest for truth to which all universities, including McGill, should be devoted to”
He added that woke student activists should “get a life, learn some history, take a genuine course in the philosophy and ethics of history, and stop messing with things you don’t understand in order to make yourself feel better.”
Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the author of several books, and a frequent columnist and political commentator. He holds degrees from McGill University and the London School of Economics.