I’ve been teaching about Canada’s 2008 apology for residential schools for some time. In discussing the topic, I point out that this isn’t only a Canadian issue. Australia has apologized to its Indigenous peoples, and New Zealand continues to make progress in its reconciliation process.
Quite often, I hear these questions from my students: “What about England? Weren’t we under their rule when the residential schools began? Have they apologized as well?”
At first, this made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to speak for another nation and say that they needed to do what Canada did. After all, our progress in the entire reconciliation process has been painfully slow.
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The truth is, colonialism has left and continues to leave deep wounds worldwide, and Great Britain is responsible for much of the pain.
Seattle Times columnist and author Dr. Dale E. Turner hit the nail on the head when he said, “It is the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them. To make a mistake is only an error in judgment, but to adhere to it when it is discovered shows infirmity of character.”
What’s true for individuals is also true for nations. I couldn’t imagine a person in Canada saying that our treatment of Indigenous peoples was something to be proud of or that we have done enough to rectify the situation. If one did, their credibility would rightly be called into question.
Yet a recent poll found that 44 per cent of people in Great Britain are proud of their colonial empire, and only 21 per cent aren’t.
The wealthy class and the British nobility lined their pockets with the riches of other nations for centuries. They were responsible, directly or indirectly, for so many deaths that the number is virtually incalculable.
Great Britain not only exploited the Indigenous peoples of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but the British were also largely responsible for the slave trade. The average life expectancy on a Caribbean sugar plantation, where many slaves ended up, was roughly three years.
The English have been exploiting other countries for centuries. This includes the Highland Land Clearances in Scotland, as well as the colonization of Ireland. We often forget that they imported food grown by the Irish during the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s.
What follows is only a partial list of other British exploits:
- They pillaged India and gunned down people who opposed them. Though they like to shirk responsibility, the massacres that occurred along the border of India and Pakistan after independence were largely the result of English decisions.
- In South Africa, 48,000 people died in concentration camps between 1899 and 1902. This number includes black Africans and Boers.
- Few would argue that the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians dates back to British mismanagement of their territory.
Great Britain, of course, wasn’t the only powerful country to violate the rights of other people. The exploits of the French, Dutch, Spanish, Belgians, Germans and Portuguese were similar.
Several of these European powers have begun reconciliation efforts in their former colonies, most notably Germany in Namibia, the Netherlands in Indonesia and Belgium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The British government has also “expressed regret” for its actions during the Mau Mau rebellion in 1952, where 100,000 Kenyans were murdered. They even offered financial compensation to surviving victims. They made it clear, however, that these actions would not be “precedent-setting.”
But isn’t it time to release the myth of Britannia? Wouldn’t Great Britain actually be great if the nation had the courage to set a precedent in creating a better world?
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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