CW: Colonial violence
On Sept. 8, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom died following a series of health complications. As a member state of the Commonwealth, Canada has commenced a 10-day national mourning period. The House of Commons was convened on Thursday to pay tribute to Elizabeth and to proclaim the accession of King Charles III to the throne. Yet, the Queen’s death has sparked a global discussion about the monarchy’s problematic past and its relevance today. The Queen’s death presents an opportunity to reflect on her role in the violent history of the British Empire, critique the influence of the monarchy in Canada, and demand more than unquestioning reverence from our peers and institutions.
Today, the monarchy is mainly characterized by antiquated elitism, unaccountability, and scandal. Its sustained impact and legacy, however, have deeply sinister implications as the institution is predicated on exploitation, privilege, and white supremacy. Considering the long history of extractivism by the British Empire at the behest of the monarchy, many countries are still in the process of rebuilding economic systems that, in their colonial eras, existed primarily to sustain Europe’s development. With absolute impunity, the monarchy looted innumerable artifacts and treasures, monopolized trade through annexation and coercion, and caused a famine in South Asia that claimed millions of lives. The reverberations of colonial exploitation still underlie the U.K.’s relationships with many Commonwealth countries.
From the very beginning of her reign in 1952, the Queen actively participated in the colonial regime of her predecessors and brutally suppressed independence movements. The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya began the same year as Elizabeth’s accession, where British colonial troops forced hundreds of thousands of Kenyans into detention camps, subjecting them to monstrous and inhumane conditions. The history of the uprising is still obscenely misrepresented by public British institutions. In the years that followed, the Queen quashed independence movements and supported the torture of anti-colonization activists in Cyprus and in Yemen. Queen Elizabeth never once acknowledged the crimes that Britain and her family committed throughout its history as an invading force, and the majority of Britons maintain that the British Empire is something to be proud of.
In Canada, those applying for citizenship must swear allegiance to the monarch, and the Crown’s authority is deeply embedded in the constitution. Functionally, the monarch serves as a merely symbolic rubber stamp and a relic of a bygone past. Yet, their presence as Canadian head of state continuously reaffirms their authority and perpetuates indifference towards the violent, systemic, and ongoing colonization of Indigenous peoples and their lands.
Two particularly problematic arguments have surfaced since Elizabeth’s death. One: Despite her role in the British Empire’s imperial conquests, the Queen, as an individual, deserves our respect. Such perspectives insist that Elizabeth, the person, and Elizabeth, the violent colonizer, can and should be viewed as distinct entities. Two: Yes, she did those things, but the criticism should wait. Both positions deny the importance of the Queen’s imperial history in the context of her remembrance.
The Queen, to much of the world, represents violence, oppression, and suffering. She orchestrated countless brutal responses to independence movements and refused to show remorse for, or even acknowledge, the crimes of her empire—normalizing an institution rooted in racism, invasion, and resource extractivism.
McGill lowered its flag to half-mast in commemoration of the Queen and the Crown’s “special relationship” with the university. The relationship in question consists of a then-Princess Elizabeth’s visit to the university, once, over 70 years ago. Aside from that, the Queen’s time in Quebec was most notable for the consistent presence of separatist protesters decrying the Crown’s influence over the French province. One could argue that McGill’s response was an insensitive and untimely attempt to flaunt its prestige and historical prominence. Yet, such actions seem wholly unsurprising in their distaste. They are consistent with the deeply problematic pasts and the shameless colonial apologetics of both the monarchy and the university.
McGill must acknowledge that its own conception is borne out of the same destructive ideology that the Queen perpetuated as an imperial tyrant. If it is serious about truth and reconciliation, Canada must use this opportunity to leave the Commonwealth. There is no better time than the present to address the wounds of Elizabeth’s role in a violent colonial regime by holding our institutions and governments to account.