Erin O’Toole brags about attending the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC). This tells us a lot about his politics, world view and priorities given the troubling history of the Kingston-based university.
O’Toole spent four years at RMC. Friends say the Conservative party leader and possible future prime minister was heavily involved in RMC life and that a military ethos shaped his outlook.
RMC is the only federally run university. Largely funded by the Department of National Defence, the minister of defence is the chancellor of a school with 2,000 students training to be military officers.
In recent years RMC has received some bad press over its patriarchal culture. A Statistics Canada report released in October detailed staggering levels of sexual assault at the college. According to Global, recent RMC commandants Al Meinzinger and Sean Friday directly enabled the misconduct and 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 RMC, gaining acceptance only a decade before O’Toole attended the college.
While the patriarchal nature of the institution is troubling, it is the school’s relationship to British imperial violence that is most shocking. 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. Usually 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 World War I 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 brutal, racist, imperialism. 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 today’s 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.
In case you think this is ancient history, celebrating violent, racist, imperialists continues at 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 Duncan Sayre MacInnes participated in a number of expeditions to conquer modern Ghana and southern Africa.
A plaque at RMC honours Huntley Brodie MacKay. The RMC graduate served British imperialism in west and southern Africa and was appointed acting administrator of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), which largely ran today’s Kenya. MacKay helped extend IBEAC control northwards from Mombasa in an expedition that left dozens dead and burnt 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 destroy a rebellion not far from the former Yonnie stronghold.
In honour of Edouard Percy Girouard, there’s a Girouard Building and plaque at the DND run school. As I detail, Girouard became famous after overseeing the construction of two hard-to-build rail lines from southern Egypt towards Khartoum, allowing British forces to bypass 800 km of treacherous boating up the Nile to conquer today’s Sudan. TheRMC 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.
Probably most appalling, two RMC brass plaques honour William Grant Stairs. He played an important part 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 and subsequently Stairs led an expedition that added 150,000 square kilometres to Leopold’s colony.
Stairs left a detailed diary of the three-year expedition with instructions to publish it upon his death. Read from a humanistic or internationalist perspective, Stairs diary of the disastrous Emin Pasha Relief Expedition is incredibly damning. Or, as Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke put it, “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. Suggested 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.
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 history of the Royal Military College? Called for renaming buildings and awards? The fact he attended RMC — mentions it frequently in his campaign — and yet has never, even mildly, criticized its past, demonstrates an indifference to some important issues. It also suggests what kind of government he would lead.