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

Have an opinion on anything you’ve read in the Guardian today? Please email us your letter and it will be considered for publication.


The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on Canada’s residential schools: an atrocity still felt today | Editorial
Editorial: The discovery of hundreds of graves of Indigenous children is forcing a deeper reckoning with the country’s past


30, Jun, 2021 @5:58 PM

Article image
‘Nobody can gaslight us’: the rappers confronting Canada’s colonial horrors
The recent discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools is the latest incident in decades of trauma for Indigenous Canadians, who are using lyricism to process it

Kyle Mullin

27, Jul, 2021 @10:47 AM

Article image
Fighting back over India’s constitution | Letters
Letters: Vinita Damodaran lauds the protesters in India rallying to protect the postcolonial constitution, and Laura Phillips criticises the British colonial legacy in Canada


27, Dec, 2019 @5:09 PM

Article image
Canada must reveal ‘undiscovered truths’ of residential schools to heal
The man who led the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission insists an independent investigation into decades of abuse of Indigenous children is essential

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

27, Jun, 2021 @9:45 AM

Article image
UK faces reckoning after unmarked Indigenous graves discovered in Canada
Activists call on Britain to acknowledge its role in efforts to erase Indigenous culture

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

06, Jul, 2021 @2:17 PM

Article image
‘He was just a child’: dead of Indigenous residential schools haunt Canada
Generations of First Nations children were abducted to institutions to solve the country’s ‘Indian problem’. Thousands never returned

Justin Ling in Montreal

05, Jun, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
‘Cultural genocide’: the shameful history of Canada’s residential schools – mapped
Recent discoveries of unmarked graves have shed new light on the country’s troubled colonial legacy

Antonio Voce, Leyland Cecco and Chris Michael

06, Sep, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Imperialism and the British class system | Letters
Letter: Dr Ellen McAdam on interpreting Britain’s imperialist legacy, comparing other cultures to find the roots of empire, and class-based prejudice


15, Jan, 2021 @6:21 PM

Article image
British rule in India: an abusive relationship | Letters
Letters: Arguments that ‘it was not all bad’ can quickly descend into a catalogue of justifications for atrocious acts and behaviours, writes Dr Nandini Boodia-Canoo. Plus letters from Geof Wood, John Griffiths and David Bentley


01, Jul, 2021 @5:26 PM

Article image
Canada discovers 751 unmarked graves at former residential school
Graves found at site of defunct Marieval Indian school in Saskatchewan, just weeks after similar discovery in British Columbia

Leyland Cecco in Toronto

24, Jun, 2021 @4:36 PM