Home Anti-Oppressive Practice – Part 2 Colonization and Colonialism Colonization and Slavery –A Short History of Colleges and Universities

Colonization and Slavery –
A Short History of Colleges and Universities

It is not only the Canadian society at large that was touched by and complicit in colonization and slavery. Canadian post-secondary institutions were active participants in colonial processes. The structural blueprint initially used to create colleges and universities during colonial times was used from that point onward to build post-secondary institutions across Canada. Universities were also heavily involved in the residential school project. These institutions also served a similar purpose to residential schools, in that they both aimed to assimilate Indigenous people to western culture and ideologies while attempting to eradicate Indigenous ways of being and understandings of the world.

Unlike American post-secondary institutions, which have been grappling with their link to colonialism and unearthing their history of slavery for some time, Canadian schools have only just begun to do this difficult work. This means that there is not as much research available to paint a fulsome picture of our past. What is out there, however, can help give us an idea of how Canadian post-secondary institutions were connected to and complicit in colonization and slavery.

The original post-secondary institutions established in Canada were intended as places where the elites of Europe could send their sons to seek out education in order to prepare to take on family business or strike out on their own in colonized territories (Nelson, 2020). Enslaved people played a large part in supporting the education of these students, in part by cooking, cleaning, and maintaining campus (Nelson, 2020). But it was not just their labour that was used to sustain institutions, their bodies were used for that purpose as well. Enslaved people were often sold to raise money for various post- secondary institutions growth and expansion efforts (Wilder, 2013). Both in death and in life, enslaved people’s bodies were also used to advance the causes of science and medicine within colleges and universities as well (Bachynski, 2018; Berry, 2018; Shashkevish, n.d.)

One post-secondary institution whose colonial history we have a bit more written information about is McGill University. McGill University was founded in 1821 and named after James McGill. McGill was a merchant whose fortune was built from selling enslaved people and the fur trade (Nelson. Charmaine, 2021). McGill University was created in the years after his death in 1813 after he bequeathed the land he bought with said fortune to the Royal Institution for the Advancement of Learning on the specific condition that they create a post-secondary institution and name it after him within a decade of his death (Nelson. Charmaine, 2021). In the immediate years after its creation, McGill University struggled greatly with its finances. So much so that in 1860, the government organization known as ‘the Executive Council of the Crown from the Province of Canada’ took £40,000 out of their General Indian Trust Fund meant for the Six Nations of the Grand River without their knowledge (Nelson. Charmaine, 2021). Though the Six Nations of the Grand River pushed for the return of the money, it was never paid back. This stolen investment helped to set McGill University up to become one of Canada’s preeminent post-secondary institutions.

Another example of a post-secondary institution whose history we have a better understanding of is Algoma University, which opened in 1965. This post-secondary institution was built on and around the site of the Shingwauk Indian Residential Day School. Shingwauk was in operation from 1873 to 1970 (Algoma University, 2022). This residential school is one of the many sights across Canada where the ongoing work of uncovering unmarked graves is occurring (Sault Online, 2023). Today, Algoma University has established the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre with support from the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association (CSAA), in order to educate the broader public about the history of Shingwauk (Algoma University, 2022).

As stated earlier, very little information is available about the history of colonization on college and university campuses in Canada. But as time goes by more and more information has been uncovered. Within recent years, post-secondary institutions like Dalhousie University and University of King’s College have taken the steps to uncover this lost history, not as an exercise of shaming, but one of revelation and truth-sharing. (Nelson. Charmaine, 2021)

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