The toxic legacy of the British empire in Canada’s residential schools | Letters

David Stirrup and James Mackay on Britain’s responsibility for systematic abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous children

Your editorial on the atrocities against First Nations children in Canadian residential boarding schools (1 July) bore the subheading: “The discovery of hundreds of graves of Indigenous children is forcing a deeper reckoning with the country’s past.”

I have to ask why you are fixing only on Canada’s history. All of the schools where human remains have been found were set up when Canada was a British dominion within the empire. The project of illegally expropriating Indigenous lands previously guaranteed under treaty goes back at least as far as the 1783 treaty of Paris, and one can draw a direct line from that act of dispossession to the eventual formalisation of the project of genocide in the boarding schools.

The destruction of Indigenous lifeways was necessary for the British corporations whose interest in timber and other natural resources drove many of the actions of crown officials in that era, and it was British money that funded much of the early missionary work that eventually became the religious institutions that would go on to bury children in unmarked graves. Maybe a little more reckoning with the UK’s own past is in order.
James Mackay
Assistant professor of British and American literatures, European University Cyprus

• It is so deeply important that the British press, including the Guardian, is covering the finding of unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools. I am glad to see that many of these articles are by Indigenous writers and that attention is being drawn to the various ways in which state violence against Indigenous peoples in settler colonial states continues.

I have just one question: why are these things being reported as if Britain bears no responsibility? The oldest residential school in Canada – the Mohawk Institute – was established in 1831, 36 years before Canadian dominion and 48 years earlier than the Carlisle Indian industrial school in Pennsylvania, the so-called “blueprint”. This was British colonial policy, and it laid the foundations for all that was to come. It would be good to see this acknowledged and for pressure to be brought on the British authorities to take that history – and the ongoing obligations it establishes – seriously.
David Stirrup
Professor of American literature and Indigenous studies, University of Kent

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