CALGARY—Last Monday, on International Women’s Day, I appeared on CTV’s Power Play with former lieutenant-governor David Onley to talk about Harry and Meghan’s interview. Instead of sticking to the subject at hand, he inserted a commonly held belief that Canada’s goodness was inherently passed down from the Crown by the Act Against Slavery.
Introduced by former lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, and passed in 1793, the Act sought to ban the importation of slaves and mandated that children born into slavery remain slaves until age 25. Unfortunately for Onley’s point, which was that Canada is the white saviour of Black people under the tutelage of British colonialism, Simcoe afterwards went to Haiti to put down the slave revolt known as the Haitian Revolution.
Simcoe did nothing to stop slavery in Canada—he was ineffective—since the uprising he attempted to quell resulted in a slavery-free country, while in Toronto, slavery continued. If this is your white saviour, stan for someone else.
What this does show is the historical misinformation that erudite members of society perpetuate to fulfill their worldview of Canada, but also of British colonialism. The history of colonialism is one of violence, savagery, rape, theft, and dehumanization for mostly Black and Brown people. In recent years, colonialism has gotten a re-brand, where its effects on these peoples have been swept under the rug and its responsibility for a vast majority of wars, civil unrest, and underdevelopment of countries under colonial rule has been ignored.
At its height, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the world’s population; indeed, the sun never set on the British Empire (it is said that’s because not even God could trust the British in the dark). You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few heads—I mean, eggs. And with populations whose melanin wasn’t as underdeveloped as their own, the British Empire, led by the British monarchy, was particularly brutal (the Irish and the Boers are notable exceptions to the melanin levels of their “subjects”). We (should) know how they treated Indigenous populations of the countries they “founded,” but seem to forget how the British monarchy terrorized and brutalized other parts of the world.
On April 13, 1919, thousands had gathered in the open area of Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi and to peacefully protest the arrest and exile of two leaders, Satyapal and Saifuddin Kitchlew. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer and his British troops opened fire on the unarmed crowd, massacring 379 people and injuring about 1,200. Known as the Amritsar Massacre, when the Queen became the first monarch to visit the site in 1997, she refused to apologize. In the Guardian’s recounting of the visit they note, “In 1997 the Queen became the first British monarch to visit the site of the massacre, but did not apologise: she merely signed the visitors’ book at the memorial. Prince Philip, seeing the memorial which spoke of 2,000 being martyred, suggested Indians had doctored history: ‘That’s wrong. I was in the navy with Dyer’s son.’”
Who would dare to accuse the Royal Family of racism with such a display of “tolerance”?
Next there is the Mau Mau of Kenya, which Britain had colonialized from 1895 to emancipation in 1963. The Mau Mau movement was formed by Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest native tribe, many of whom had been forced off their lands by white settlers. They were required to live in ethnic reserves and required to possess a special permit to move around the country (hmm…this sounds familiar, Canadian even). Many ended up as cheap labour on white-owned farms.
In 1952, the Mau Mau movement fought back, after they had been banned by the British. Rebels attacked white-owned farms. The colonial government responded by conducting a campaign of mass arrests and rounding up African people to put them in detention camps where they were interrogated and often tortured and abused. Among the tortured detainees was Hussein Onyango Obama, the grandfather of Barack Obama. The Mau Mau sued the British government for war crimes and in 2013, reached a settlement of £19.9 million. This case was the first time victims of colonialism won compensation from the British government.
I could continue the list of British colonialist atrocities such as: The Bengal Famine, The Opium Wars, Boer concentration camps (which provided a blueprint for the Nazis), Aden Emergency, Maori Shootings, clearing of Indigenous peoples in Canada and Australia off their land, Bloody Sunday(s) and, of course, the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Unfortunately, I don’t have the word count to narrate the countless human rights violations of the British imperialist Crown, where the descendants of the victims still live with the repercussions. At least Barbados got the message and is now moving to rectify its relationship with the Crown to one that is more socially distanced.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast