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Statue Wars Come to the British Empire. First Stop: Canada

Britain's colonial legacy is a lot more mixed than the protesters would admit.

BLM demonstrators during a rally at Churchill statue in Parliament Square, London, as the funeral of George Floyd takes place in the US following his death on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis. (Photo by Victoria Jones/PA Images via Getty Images)

As the sun was finally beginning to set on the British Empire in 1967, Richard Turnbull, British governor of Aden, joined the defense minister for a night-time cocktail. It was the eve of that colony’s independence. Gazing over the Bay of Oman, the defense minister asked the governor what he thought the legacy of the British Empire would be. 

After considering this question for a few thoughtful moments, the governor said, “association football and the term f— off.” 

However salient those two points may be, it has become undeniable that the Empire has had far more consequence than the governor—perhaps facetiously—declared on that Arabian night. In Canada, the Empire’s legacy is being confronted again as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps across the American border. 

Over the course of a few weeks, streets, statues, and buildings associated with Canada’s colonial past have suffered through the ire of this movement. Monuments older than the country itself are now subject to vandalism and desecration. Even Winston Churchill has been deemed too racist, in their view, for quiet admiration—let alone celebration. 

“Let’s scream and yell at that horrible statue,” said one man protesting in Toronto, in front of the wartime leader’s monument—under whom Canada began to properly enjoy the fruits of independence. 

As a dominion, Canada enjoyed far better treatment than the colonies that were exploited for London’s benefit. Yet, for every example of a mistreated colony lies another whose modern successes derive from its Imperial past: for every Gambia, there is a Hong Kong; for every Arabia, there is an India. Take, for instance, these words delivered to the Oxford Union in 2005 by India’s then-prime minister: there were “beneficial consequences” of British colonial rule like “free press, constitutional government, professional service, modern universities, and research laboratories.” 

“India’s struggle for independence,” continued the prime minister, “was more an assertion by Indians of their natural right to self-governance than an outright rejection of the British claim to good governance.” This sentiment was more recently echoed by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, who flew the old colonial flag after storming the city’s legislature. It was not the British’s governance they had an issue with.

The Indian prime minister’s address was hardly uncontroversial in the subcontinent itself, yet it reveals an empire that is far more complicated than that of Belgium, France or even Spain. As European powers fade further into irrelevance and as the American republic sickens, who, if not India, is to withstand the ever-more audacious authoritarianism of Xi Jinping’s China? 

This complexity is further highlighted through slavery, which in the early days of the Empire, was encouraged by London’s technocrats. Yet in recent decades, it has become all-together too easy to dismiss the Empire’s role in ending the practice—even redirecting ships to tackle slave traders during the height of the Napoleonic wars. Similarly, the money borrowed for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act—which effectively bought and then released all slaves in the Empire’s territory—was only repaid by the British public in 2015. What more can a nation do (one may cautiously ask) to atone for the sins of their long-dead ancestors?

Polling conducted this year reveals that 37 percent of the British population neither approve nor disapprove of the Empire, while 32 percent of the public believes it deserves admiration. David Cameron—who by all means was a modernizing prime minister—said in 2013 that the Empire is still something that the nation could be proud of. The British, it seems, have a rather romantic view of their imperial past. 

Canadians, however, are far less certain. Although the Empire’s legacy has only recently been broached in English-Canada, French-Canada has detested British imperialism since the 1700s. This is no more apparent than in Quebec City, where lies a monument to James Wolfe, a general who died defeating the French at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Routinely scribbled on the monument’s plaque is the separatist maxim, “Vive le Québec Libre.” God only knows the fortune acquired by the city’s steam cleaners over the years. 

The true cost of imperialism is the venomous feeling of exploitation and humiliation forced upon the local population by the colonial masters, as evidenced in Quebec through two fervent independence referendums. This is serious enough in Canada—it nearly severed the country twice—however, the true extent of the damage can be viewed today in the Levant.

The British Empire ended officially in 1997 on a fittingly rainy night in Hong Kong. The ceremony was understated and elegant: culminating in the transfer of the Union Jack for China’s five-starred flag. The protesters who march on the streets of Canada would have us believe that history is binary: there is no moral ambiguity; leaders, ideas, and empires were either evil or virtuous. Whatever crimes were committed in the name of the British Empire—and there were many—it is no coincidence that those countries who now stand as liberal democracies today were once governed by the British. Let us not deny its triumphs in order to condemn its failures. 

Nico Johnson is a contributor to The American Conservative and the political correspondent at The Post Millennial. Originally from the UK, Nico now lives and works in Montreal, Quebec. 

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