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Canadian State Trials, Volume IV

By Barry Wright, Eric Tucker, and Susan Binnie, Editors

Review By Scott Eaton

May 2, 2016

BC Studies no. 191 Autumn 2016  | p. 148-150


The fourth volume of the Osgoode Society’s Canadian State Trials is a critical analysis of the powers, both theoretical and practical, of Canada’s judiciary and political executive, and how Canadian state officials used such powers to react to real and perceived security risks in the years between the First and Second World Wars. The book’s twelve chapters present well-researched scholarship on a number of pivotal Canadian legal cases, and reveal much about the state’s inventive and heavy-handed approach to repressing both individuals and groups it perceived as threats to its supremacy. Bodhan Kordan, for instance, convincingly argues that state legislation — such as the “15 August 1914 Proclamation Respecting Immigrants of German or Austro-Hungarian Nationality” and Order in Council PC 2721 (the War Measures Act) — though framed around a false ethnic dichotomy and enacted to intern enemy aliens during the First World War, also worked as an expedient solution for dealing with the country’s foreign-born destitute. Peter McDermott’s observation that “the use of forced labour [within interment camps] was certainly not in accord with imperial policy, and not within the spirit of the Hague Convention” (89) substantiates Kordan’s point, and Jonathan Swainger confirms that in sedition cases, the courts were willing to protect individual rights to hold socialist views but were ultimately worried about the effect that socialist agitation might have on class relations.

For all of its strengths, the collection is not wholly representative of Canada’s diverse populace. While the book’s Foreword claims that “[a]ll regions of the country are covered,” this is perhaps misleading: no chapter explores the Yukon or Northwest Territories. Furthermore, while there is a strong focus on the relationship between Canada’s judicial processes and the country’s radicals, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, there is no such analysis regarding the country’s Aboriginal, Black, or — with the exception of Andrée Lévesque’s consideration of the trial of Jeanne Corbin — female populations. Recent studies evaluating these relationships do exist; Barrington Walker’s Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1958 (2010) and Shelley Gavigan’s Hunger, Horses, and Government Men: Criminal Law on the Aboriginal Plains, 1870-1905 (2012) are two pertinent examples. Accordingly, the decision not to include such research is disappointing.

On another note, most of the chapters employ a top-down analysis and largely ignore the agency of the repressed. There are a few exceptions. David Frank offers some analysis as to why J.B. McLachlan — the infamous communist and Cape Breton labour leader — appeared so reserved during his trial, and John McLaren offers an exceptional analysis of Doukhobor leader Peter Petrovich Veregin’s resistance to state attempts at deport him from Canada. Still, as McLaren himself admits, although Veregin was an undesirable minority, his large personal fortune made his case something of an anomaly. The tactics and actions of repressed Canadians in this collection are revealed in passing glances rather than a protracted gaze that would add to the broader historiography.

Still, Canadian State Trials Volume IV is a superb structural analysis of how Canada’s courts were, and can be, used as state instruments of tyranny. It presents a number of fascinating and valuable questions, such as: “Are the political executive and the judiciary truly separate branches of government?” and “What rhetoric does the state employ in justifying the curtailing of civil liberties?” and “How do courtroom rules and processes advantage or disadvantage different categories of Canadians?” This book will be useful to scholars of history, political science, and legal studies, and in the wake of Bill C-51, it might also generate provocative discussions regarding impending actions of the federal government’s Department of Public Safety. Readers, however, may feel that important voices have regrettably been silenced.

Canadian State Trials, Volume IV
Barry Wright, Eric Tucker, and Susan Binnie, editors
Toronto: University of Toronto Press (Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History), 2015. 544 pp. $80.00 cloth