The recent discovery of the remains of hundreds of victims of the residential school system across Canada has prompted a widespread toppling of statues of British monarchs. The toppling of these public monuments represents a reckoning with the very real horrors of colonialism and empire inflicted upon the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and seeks to challenge dominant narratives concerning the past.
We often walk past or don’t even recognise public statues. Whom or what they represent are often so taken for granted that they just become part of a passive acceptance of social and cultural furniture and history. Yet statues are symbolic representations, not objective fact. Purposely or not, this has been conflated by the political Right.
By the same token, history is not objective fact but the reinterpretation of tenuous links to past events viewed through the prism of the contemporary world. Statues are rejected (and history challenged) because what they symbolically represent is rejected. A statue of Queen Elizabeth II is toppled in Canada in the twenty-first century not because she is a slave-owning, empire-promoting colonialist seeking to culturally obliterate or assimilate Indigenous peoples (as far as I know), but because statues of British monarchs represent (in this context) colonialism, and not only that but the impact empire and colonialism had (and continue to have) on Indigenous people.
The toppling of these statues is hugely symbolic. It signifies a very public rejection of colonialism and racial injustice, highlighting the hugely destructive legacy and impact British colonialism and empire had whilst also signifying an end to their passive acceptance and glorification. For many, this challenges an accepted understanding of the past and of structures of power in the present. As we are very aware in the UK, the toppling of statues is met by the Right as an affront to an ideological worldview. The Right presents so-called ‘cancel culture’ as an attack on the very fabric of history, culture, society and nationhood. Yet these are entirely constructed concepts of the past that legitimise the structures of power, place and identity of the present.
Although the Right will be outraged at the toppling and defacement of statues of British monarchs, the point isn’t necessarily a rejection of the British monarchy per se – indeed, the Queen as head of state in Canada still carries much widespread support. Moreover, the Queen enjoys much support throughout the Commonwealth as head of state – even as a passively accepted historical and cultural figure of security, familiarity and community. However, an association of nations bound by colonialism and empire is built upon foundations that have little relevance and questionable legitimacy in the twenty-first century. A statue of a British monarch represents legitimate structures of power, place and historical lineage for some (and in a dominant sense historically speaking), but not for others.
Nevertheless, the issue is what these monarchs represent within the context in which they exist – a system of colonial power and abuse; the systematic destruction of Indigenous culture and communities and the imposition of British rule and cultural assimilation. Moreover, the recent statue topplings also symbolise the contemporary, overt rejection of ‘business as usual’, in terms of passive acceptance of the British colonial legacy as being ‘good’. It was not, and largely is still not, good for Indigenous people in Canada or in other former colonial possessions such as Australia.
Again, this will be rejected by the Right as woke revisionist madness and extremism, with any challenge to the over-simplified glorification of the legacy of the British empire unacceptable. Yet this long-held and dominant narrative must be challenged for the mythological and ideological historicisation that it represents.
The uncovering of the remains in Canada of hundreds of Indigenous victims of a colonial system of abuse and cultural genocide is not necessarily a shock – where British colonialism went, the systematic obliteration of Indigenous peoples accompanied. Yet this comes on the back of the Black Lives Matter movement’s expansion into the mainstream and a wider highlighting of the extremes of white supremacism and historical systematic inequalities.
The Right has been fighting a vicious rear-guard action in defence of historically dominant narratives of British colonialism as a general force for good and of traditional hierarchies of power – from the demand to remove statues of Confederate civil war leaders in the United States to the ongoing fight to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University.
Public statues of historical figures that were directly involved in exploitation, slavery, racial injustice and cultural genocide must be removed. For a statue to be in the public domain signifies a glorification and celebration of a figure and what they did – but also of what they symbolically represent within the cultural context of their placement. Dominant narratives change, and racism and white supremacism must be rejected, therefore statues and meaning must change too.
Nevertheless, this directly plays into a wider sense of a so-called ‘culture war’ and a huge anti-woke backlash by the Right. According to the Right, dominant narratives of what colonialism and empire (amongst other things) mean don’t change: they are historical and objective fact. The Right seeks to defend structures of power that legitimate white supremacy, cultural dominance and the glorification of colonialism and empire. The Right does not want to reflect upon the horrors of empire, colonialism or slavery, and it does not want to allow Indigenous communities to share their stories and experiences, as this directly challenges its domination of historical legitimacy, power and representation.
Statues of monarchs in former colonies represent colonial triumphalism and a repression of the reality of empire. Statues of former slave owners represent a passive acceptance of slavery, exploitation and white supremacy. Unless we agree that colonialism, empire, white supremacism and cultural genocide are things to be publicly celebrated, expect more statues to be toppled and more historical narratives to be challenged.
Dr Stuart Cartland is a Teaching Fellow in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex.
For more on statues, the legacy of empire and patriotism, check out the special Compass publication Belonging, Place and the Nation, featuring contributions from Clive Lewis MP, Francesca Klug and Anand Menon.