I’m worried about Gerry Chidiac’s call for an apology from Britain for its colonial empire (Prince George Daily News, 23 April 2021). Actually, it’s a call for an apology from all the western European nations that had empires. I understand that he feels guilty about the residential schools and the failure of his fellow Canadians to more speedily ante up contrition and reparations. He wants to help us along by calling for the people of Britain, Portugal, Spain, Germany and France to indicate that they too feel sorry for the evils committed by colonialism. He doesn’t say specifically that this will directly help the residential schools situation, but it will, he affirms, “set a precedent in creating a better world.”
I doubt this, though if Chidiac would explain how he actually plans going about extracting such an apology I might be able to see some benefits. Does he want economic sanctions against Britain and the EU? A petition to the Queen or Boris Johnson signed by thousands of Canadians? A ramping up of Black Lives Matter protests in western Europe?
Until Chidiac explains his plans, I can only regard his proposal as a divisive distraction.
The proposal is divisive in the sense that it is sexist, classist, and racist. Why would British women, for example, think that their sisters of the 15th to the 20th century were responsible for the evils perpetrated by the British Empire? Women had no political power whatsoever until they got the vote in 1928. The one woman that did have power, Elizabeth I, being so much smarter than the men around her (like Sir Walter Raleigh), was against acquiring colonies. She felt it would take money away from fending off Spain and exterminating the Catholics in England and Ireland. Further, when women did get the vote, most of them were for shedding the Empire.
Marx and other left-wing economists and historians would tell Chidiac that his proposal is an insult to workers and the poor in general. It isn’t as if these people enjoyed any residual benefits from having had an empire — these would still be in the hands of “the aristocracy and the wealthy class,” as Chidiac says. Not only that, but the poor had no say in colonialism. At the beginning of the 19th century, when the empire and slavery were at their height, only six per cent of men voted — those who owned significant amounts of property. Hundreds of thousands of poor people suffered and died in wars to expand and enforce British hegemony.
Chidiac’s focus on Britain and the Western European countries is racist. It implies that they only are guilty of colonialism, when everyone knows that colonialism is a feature of every tribe, ethnicity and nation ever since we homo sapiens came out of Africa and occupied the lands of the Denisovan and Neanderthal peoples. Why shouldn’t the Mongolians apologize for the empire of Kubla Khan, the Arabs for the Islamic conquests of the Byzantine Empire, Spain, and eastern India, the Inca for their rule over the Aymara, and the Coast Salish for conquering and enslaving the Lekwiltoks?
Chidiac’s racist attitude is further emphasized by the fact that he demands that western European nations apologize for their past. It’s as if, 500 years ago, these peoples acquired a gene that required them to dominate others, a sort of original sin that that they need to make up for through Calvinistic self-interrogation and contrition. In Chidiac’s eyes, evidently, all contemporary Britons are guilty of this sin, even though few if any were of voting age just after World War II when the Empire pretty much disappeared. Also, the few voters from shortly after the war that might be still alive today were resoundingly for getting rid of the Empire, removing the colonialist Conservative Winston Churchill from office and electing anti-colonialist socialist Clement Attlee. Why would living Britons apologize for an Empire that so many of them worked so hard to take down?
In effect, Chidiac’s proposal requires those of us who are of European extraction to disrespect our ancestors. In regards to Canadians, these ancestors voted for John A. Macdonald and his policies. They preferred the Indigenous peoples to be driven off their lands and confined to reservations. They appreciated that the British negotiated a solid border with the U.S. even if that line did cut across the traditional lands of indigenous tribes. They liked the CPR because it enabled the government to protect that line from American incursions and put down any Metis/Indigenous rebellions, because it brought in more European settlers, and because it got their wheat to market.
Focussing on our ancestors as evil or stupid people distracts us from the fact that they were just like us, trying to get by and assuming that the benefits of change were greater than the evils. They were as able to keep up with politics as we are, having to make a living, raise kids, and sleep, and they were just as conscious of their racism as we are to ours — our cell phones loaded with cobalt mined by child labourers in the Congo, our clothing manufactured by indentured workers in India or overworked and underpaid women in Bangladesh, our food produced by immigrant Mexican workers. Should we, as Chidiac implies, adopt a holier-than-thou attitude to our predecessors, damning them utterly for their sins, ignoring the good they did?
The good that they did, both under the British and later as independent Canadians, was impressive and can be forgotten only at our peril. In addition to negotiating and defending a border and building a railway, the Empire through its Canadian subjects (represented at the crucial moment of independence by the recently demonized John A.) established and developed parliamentary democracy in Canada, a system that, as the recently demonized Winston Churchill put it, looks terrible, until you look at other systems.
In respect to residential schools, the issue that inspired Chidiac’s proposal, our ancestors both British and Canadian left us the means of sorting things out, starting with George III’s Royal Proclamation of 1763. This precedent guided Canadian courts to demand that treaties be negotiated, signed and enforced, and further that old treaties be reviewed and re-written for fairness. It is a process that, difficult as it is, seems to be leading to that better world that Chidiac wants.
Should it now be disrespected, and ignored or downplayed, in favour of some divisive, distracting and probably impossible scheme to get western Europeans and their descendants to plead guilty of colonialism?