On June 30, the 60thanniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo, King Philippe of Belgium expressed regret for the “acts of violence and cruelty” committed by his ancestor King Leopold II. The day also saw the state-sanctioned removal of another statue of this forgotten villain of history, the man who enslaved the Congo Free State, made himself and his country rich through the trade of ivory and rubber, and is responsible for up to 10 million deaths.
The significance of Philippe’s statement, made in a letter to current Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi, comes clear when it is seen in contrast to the speech his uncle Baudouin made on the event of Congolese independence in 1960. At that time, King Baudouin referred to Belgian rule in the Congo, begun by Leopold II, as a “civilizing mission.” This was naturally met with outrage from Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Congo, who less than a year later became one of Africa’s most famous martyrs.
Quite honestly, I was shocked by the news of Philippe’s statement. Before the death of George Floyd and the subsequent global outcry, I did not expect statues of Leopold II to be removed any time soon, despite the ugly truth of his crimes against humanity and I never expected a member of the Belgian royal family to have the courage to be honest.
We are living through a time of tremendous change, which many consider the most significant global event since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The whitewashed fences of racist lies, hidden behind the pages of our history books, are collapsing when exposed to the light of truth.
We can now see the love shining forth from those who have suffered yet refused to hate. Looking at recent events, African-American philosopher Cornel West remarked, “It’s in the great tradition of the best of black people, a people who have been hated chronically, systemically, for 400 years but have taught the world so much about love and how to love.”
Statistics in Canada demonstrate that we have not done much better than our American neighbours with regard to racial issues. Incarceration rates for our Indigenous peoples are disproportionately high, as are infant mortality rates. Our police target people of colour and we also have discriminatory hiring practices. Even today, few Canadians are aware of the extent that slavery existed in our country, nor are we aware of its impact.
We have seen demonstrations all over the world because racism is a global issue. The challenge now is to keep moving forward. It will not be enough for Americans to vote Donald Trump out of the White House. The policies Joe Biden supported in Congress and as vice president are a major source of the problems in America and around the world and they must be dealt with.
It is not enough for King Philippe to recognize the crimes of his ancestors. These must be followed by significant action.
It was not enough for Stephen Harper to apologize for the residential schools in Canada in 2008 and it is not enough to simply acknowledge that racial profiling exists.
We are fortunate in Canada that after studying the impact of systemic racism on our Indigenous population, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission published 94 calls to action in 2015. This gives us a blueprint for a way to begin to move forward. Now we need the courage to put all of these recommendations into action and we need to expand these principles to other aspects of Canadian society.
The response to the death of George Floyd has demonstrated that truth and love are powerful forces that cannot be suppressed anymore. If we want to leave a great country and a great world to our descendants, these are the principles that must guide our actions as we move forward with courage.