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Why Canada must confront the myths of its imperial past

Troubling history of the Royal Military College and its links to the violence and racism of British imperialism need a reckoning

Canadian Politics

The Emin Pasha Relief Expedition (1886-1889) emerging out of the dense forest onto the plains of Africa. Led in part by Canadian William Grant Stairs, the expedition helped Belgian King Leopold II conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout the 2021 federal election campaign, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole has taken to referencing his time as a student at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), describing how his education instilled a “sense of determination” that fuelled a commitment to a life of public service. But how many Canadians are aware of the troubling history of the Kingston-based university and its connections to the racism and violence of British imperialism?

O’Toole spent four years at the RMC, graduating in 1995, after which he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Friends say the Conservative leader and possible future prime minister was heavily involved in RMC life and that a “military ethos” shapes his outlook.

Established in 1874 on a 41-hectare peninsula on the shores of Lake Ontario, the RMC is the only federally-run university in Canada. The degree-granting college currently enrolls more than 2,000 students, training officer cadets for all branches of the military.

In recent years the RMC has received some bad press regarding its patriarchal culture. A Statistics Canada report released in October detailed staggering levels of sexual assault at the college. According to Global News, recent RMC commandants Al Meinzinger and Sean Friday directly enabled the misconduct, while sexual assault prevention educator, Julie S. Lalonde, described the online attacks she received after complaining of verbal abuse by RMC officer cadets. For more than a century, women were not allowed to attend the RMC, gaining acceptance only a decade before O’Toole attended the college.

While the sexist reputation of the institution is troubling, it is the school’s historic relationship to British imperial violence that is most often overlooked. The RMC was created in 1876 largely to train “proper white gentlemen” to be officers of British imperialism, according to army historian Andrew B. Godefroy. Between 1880 and 1900 RMC-trained soldiers participated in at least 28 imperial campaigns. Typically commissioned to British units, RMC graduates fought in dozens more expeditions over the next 15 years.

An early RMC graduate, William Heneker participated in a dozen often bloody campaigns to conquer different parts of West Africa between 1897 and 1906. Heneker published an influential British training manual titled Bush Warfare. It noted: “Savage nations have, as a rule, to be cowed, either by having their warriors severely beaten in action and made to suffer heavy losses … The great thing is to impress savages with the fact that they are the weaker, and that it is intended to occupy the country, enforce the will of the white man.”

During the First World War RMC graduate Charles MacPherson Dobell commanded an 18,000-man Anglo-French force that captured the Cameroons and Togoland from Germany in fighting that destroyed many villages and left thousands of West Africans dead. Subsequently, Dobell commanded a British force that was the first to use poison gas in the Middle East campaign. He planned the April 1917 Second Battle of Gaza against Ottoman forces, which employed “2,000 gas-shells specially shipped from England.”

At the time the school openly celebrated the brutal conquests of the British empire in Africa. Speaking to the RMC Club about capturing the town of Brohemie (Ebrohimi) on the Benin River in 1894, RMC graduate Kenneth Jeffrey Campbell described how “a hail of lead [was] ‘pumped’ on them from our Maxim guns, together with rockets discharged into the town from the rocket party.” For weeks the British blocked food from entering Brohemie and ultimately burned the town in what is today southern Nigeria. Campbell told the RMC audience, “It was fired and so effectually razed to the ground that not a stick remains standing. The rebel Nanna is now confined … Half measures are of no avail in dealing with the West African. If obliged to strike, hit hard.” Some 500 were killed in a campaign to destroy a ruler, Nanna, whose economic prowess impeded the Royal Niger Company and other British business interests from capturing more of the area’s wealth and trade.

British soldiers pose with a Maxim machine gun. Pioneered in 1885, the weapon became a powerful symbol of European imperialism during an era when Canadian soldiers were active participants in campaigns across equatorial Africa. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Far from ancient history, celebration of these violent colonial exploits continues at the RMC. For more than half a century a selected fourth-year RMC cadet has been awarded the Duncan Sayre MacInnes Memorial Scholarship. An RMC graduate, Captain MacInnes participated in a number of expeditions to conquer modern Ghana and southern Africa.

A plaque at RMC also honours Huntley Brodie MacKay, an RMC graduate who served British imperialism in West and Southern Africa and was appointed acting administrator of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), which largely ran what is present day Kenya. MacKay helped extend IBEAC control northwards from Mombasa in an expedition that left dozens dead and razed a number of villages. On the other side of the continent, MacKay was part of an expedition to destroy the Yonnie stronghold of Robari in what is now southeast Sierra Leone. In the fighting the British employed the first ever Maxim gun, reported MacMillan’s Magazine: “Maxim, which here administered rather than received its baptism of fire, was turned on them, and they dropped off the roofs by dozens… When the leading troops entered the gates … there was not a living Yonnie left in the town, although there was no lack of their dead.”

Replacing MacKay as West Africa’s Commanding Royal Engineer in 1889, William Henry Robinson also has a plaque in his honour at RMC. In 1892 the 29-year-old led a small force to put down a rebellion not far from the former Yonnie stronghold.

Captain William Grant Stairs, leader of the 1891-92 Stairs Expedition. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Other Canadians who served in imperial operations in West Africa at the turn of the century are commemorated at the RMC. Named in honour of Edouard Percy Girouard, there’s a Girouard Building and plaque at the DND-operated school. As I have detailed elsewhere, Girouard gained infamy after overseeing the construction of two hard-to-build rail lines from southern Egypt towards Khartoum, allowing British forces to bypass 800 kilometres of treacherous boating up the Nile to conquer today’s Sudan. The RMC graduate would be posted to a series of prominent positions across Africa, even rising to be high commissioner of Northern Nigeria and governor of British East Africa. Girouard’s unchecked zeal for efforts to turn today’s Kenya into a “white man’s country” eventually prompted the Colonial Office in London to relieve him of his duties.

Elsewhere on campus, two RMC brass plaques pay tribute to William Grant Stairs, a Canadian explorer, soldier and adventurer from Halifax who played an important role in two expeditions that expanded Belgian King Leopold II’s immensely profitable Congolese venture, which left millions dead in a bid to extract rubber. The RMC-trained soldier was one of 10 white officers in the first-ever European expedition to cross the interior of the continent. Stairs led an expeditionary force that added 150,000 square kilometres to Leopold’s colony to “pacify the area that was under the supposed rule of the Congo Free State.”

Stairs left a detailed diary of the three-year expedition with instructions to publish it upon his death. The soldiers retelling of the disastrous Emin Pasha Relief Expedition is incredibly damning. In the words of Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke, “Stairs’ account of his atrocities establishes that even Canadians, blinded by racism, can become swashbuckling mass murderers.”

Within two years of the Emin Pasha Relief Expedition Stairs helped King Leopold II conquer the resource-rich Katanga region of the Congo. Recommended to Leopold by British investors and having already impressed ‘explorer’ Henry Morton Stanley with his brutality, Stairs headed up a heavily armed mission that swelled to 2,000.

The RMC’s ongoing celebration of Stairs, Girouard and other men who conquered Africa and elsewhere reflects an ongoing militaristic, imperialist, racist and misogynistic culture.

Has Erin O’Toole ever acknowledged the more ignominious parts of the RMC’s history? Has he ever called for renaming buildings and awards at the college? The fact the Conservative leader attended the RMC, while mentioning his affiliation frequently throughout the federal election campaign, and yet has never, even mildly, criticized its past, demonstrates an indifference to some important issues that carry on into the present. It also suggests what kind of government he would lead.

Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), and “part of that rare but growing group of social critics unafraid to confront Canada’s self-satisfied myths” (Quill & Quire). He has published nine books.


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