Current Problems

Church Apologies and Reconciliation (58-61)

Queen missed opportunity to right colonial wrongs, critics say

September 11, 2022

Critics reckon with Queen’s complicated reign and to what extent she supported colonial agenda

Ian Jones Pool

The Queen travelled to more than 100 countries since 1952. But her death inevitably raises questions about whether bonds forcibly formed by colonization can endure.

Toronto Star: Queen Elizabeth II is being remembered in a myriad of ways after her death, and many of the memories are less than flattering.

Marginalized groups in particular have criticized the Queen’s participation within a colonial institution. But to what extent did Elizabeth II forward the colonial agenda, and how much did she try to right past wrongs?

It’s complicated, commentators from Indigenous and Black communities say. While the Queen’s mostly apolitical reign perhaps allowed her to distance herself from the institution’s colonial practices, several critics say it was a missed opportunity for the Queen to address the monarchy’s harms. And while it’s not clear what the future holds as King Charles III takes the throne, some community members aren’t holding their breath.

“The Queen has a long and complicated position as head of a colonial state,” said Crystal Gail Fraser, assistant professor of history and Native studies at the University of Alberta. “The Queen in her lifetime … was a part of policies that we now know as genocide.”

She pointed to Canada’s Indian Act, which set the stage for residential schools and criminalizing Indigenous cultural practices. In addition, the monarch served as partner to treaties the government signed with Indigenous communities, which Fraser said happened under inequitable circumstances. For instance, Indigenous communities in Edmonton were pressured to sign Treaty 6 at a time when they faced “extreme duress,” including starvation due to a diminishing buffalo population and widespread disease from settlers, Fraser said.

“In fact, many of those treaty promises have not been honoured in the first place,” she said.

Many people will remember and respect the Queen’s efforts to stay out of politics, said Angela Mashford-Pringle, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

But that approach was also harmful, said the associate director at the Waakebiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health. For example, the Queen’s representative signed the treaties with Indigenous communities, but didn’t enforce them, Mashford-Pringle said. As well, the Canadian government, and recently the Pope, made public apologies for residential schools, but the monarchy hasn’t.

“The fact that she wouldn’t speak up on certain issues was like the silent ‘yes, go ahead,’ because she was trying to be apolitical,” said Mashford-Pringle, who’s also Indigenous health lead at the Dalla Lana school. “Her standing back and saying ‘governments will deal with that, I’m not here to do that. That’s not my job,’ is problematic and is still problematic.

“I’m hoping that the new king will do something to change that.”

While the amount of real power the monarch holds within countries such as Canada is limited, a social work professor in Newfoundland argues the institution still wields a lot of influence. “What I would have liked to see is somebody who is so well-liked around the world actually take some more assertive or aggressive or direct stance to address some of the colonial ills that the British and the British empires of the past and still today have engaged in,” said Delores V. Mullings of Memorial University, who specializes in antiBlack racism and critical race theory.

She pointed to some former colonies as places where the monarchy could address the lasting impacts of colonial policies. For example, the monarch could remove herself or himself as head of state from some of those countries, Mullings said, and make financial reparations to people affected by slavery.

With other values being re-evaluated since the COVID pandemic, she says it’s time to think about the future role of the royal institution in the Commonwealth.

Though how the monarchy changes its approach under King Charles III remains to be seen, Fraser isn’t expecting anything to happen overnight. “They have not necessarily been supporters of Indigenous rights. Yes, they may have taken a step back from certain things, but that should not be translated as working with any kind of decolonial approach,” she said.

Fraser extended respect and sympathies to the Royal Family for the death of the Queen. Despite the monarch’s complicated legacy, Indigenous communities have traditions and laws that encourage forgiveness and hospitality, she noted. “This does not mean that we’ve stopped advocating for our rights and our sovereignty.”

The Canadian government, and recently the Pope, made public apologies for residential schools, but the monarchy hasn’t