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COLUMN: History is rife with big talk on liberty but narrow application of rights

"The real problem, in my mind, stems from the history of Anglo-British political theory and how it was put into practice."
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Jared Milne

The legacies of political leaders ranging from Winston Churchill to John A. Macdonald to George Washington are major controversies these days. They’ve been vilified as everything from racist to genocidal, as critics and protesters point out the ugly results many of their actions on peoples ranging from black Africans to North American Indigenous people. Those results still impact many of these same peoples today.

Many of those same people have good reason to be angry, but I can’t help but think that the controversy over these figures’ legacies kind of misses the forest for the trees. The real problem, in my mind, stems from the history of Anglo-British political theory and how it was put into practice. I say ‘Anglo-British’ because most of the theories originated in Britain and manifested in countries that were former British colonies and have English as one of their most common languages, like Canada and the United States.

British political thinkers like John Locke and Lord Acton and American Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson wrote extensively about freedom and human rights. Unfortunately, Britain and its colonies only applied those principles very selectively. While men like Locke, Acton and Jefferson were writing out deep, perceptive thoughts on liberty, the United States still enslaved black people and Britain was colonizing large swathes of Africa and Asia.

Canada is no exception to this, of course. Wilfrid Laurier spoke eloquently about a ‘partnership’ between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians, and how many different nationalities could live together without abandoning their traditions, saying “as long as I live ... I shall repel the idea of changing (Canada)’s different elements.” Unfortunately, while he said this Laurier also drastically increased the ‘head tax’ Macdonald placed on Asian immigrants and maintained the residential school system.

Macdonald himself is a good example of the problem. He’s widely criticized today, but what neither most of his critics or most of his defenders realize is the role of the radical Orange Protestant order in Canada. Many Orangemen, whose motto was “One Flag, One Religion, One Nation”, went crazy when the Catholic Louis Riel hanged the Protestant Thomas Scott for threatening the Metis at Red River, which led to the Northwest Resistances. Many of those same Protestants burned Riel in effigy and cheered when he was executed. Some of them wanted to lynch Riel without even a trial.

Macdonald played a role, but he was far from alone in the injustices inflicted on Indigenous people, Asians or anyone else.

Whether it was Jim Crow laws in the United States or suffragettes only caring about whether white women could vote, the habit of talking big about liberty and rights and only applying them narrowly has a very long history in Anglo-British thought and politics. It exists in other traditions, like whether revolutionary France’s declaration of human rights applied to black Haitian slaves, but the Anglo-British version is the one that had the biggest impact on the world.

Maybe that’s what we should be discussing, instead of just focusing on individual examples.

Jared Milne is a St. Albert resident with a passion for Canadian history and politics.