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Regulating Lives: Historical Essays on the State, Society, the Individual, and the Law

By John McLaren, Robert Menzies, Dorothy E. Chunn

Review By Catherine Carstairs

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 138-139 Summer-Autumn 2003  | p. 203-4

REGULATING LIVES adds to a rapidly growing body of work in Canadian legal history and in the history of moral regulation. The collection should be of great interest to historians of the family, gender, race relations, and the state, and several of the individual chapters are excellent. 

Dorothy Chunn’s provocative chapter examines the impact of the criminalization of incest between 1890 and 1940, and questions the use of the criminal law to regulate the “private.” Chunn points out that the criminalization of incest was part of the late nineteenth-century move towards regulating all sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage through the law rather than through the family, the church, and other community institutions. Using case files, she shows that going to court was an ordeal for the children and young women who accused their fathers and brothers of incest. They were forced to tell their experiences of sexual abuse at least twice in the presence of the accused and were interrogated about their sexual histories, while the man accused was generally only cross-examined once. Convictions were far from assured, which reinforced the idea that incest was an atypical act rather than an effect of unequal power relations within the family. Most of the families involved in these cases were poor. The poor, of course, had fewer options than did the rich for dealing with such problems privately. Incest, Chunn concludes, is rooted in structural inequalities, and the criminal law is limited in its ability to deal with such problems. 

John McLaren’s chapter, “The State, Child Snatching and the Law: The Seizure and Indoctrination of Sons of Freedom Children in British Columbia, 1950-60,” tells the complex story of the efforts made by various provincial governments to persuade and to force Doukhobor parents to educate their children in public schools from the 1920s to the 1950s. This chapter raises questions about the extent to which civil liberties for ethnic minorities improved in the post-Second World War period. McLaren includes detailed discussions of Doukhobor leadership and the impact of political changes in British Columbia and in Canada. Although his chapter is a difficult read, McLaren shows where the power to make decisions resided, why decisions were made, and what impact they had on the people involved. 

Robert Menzies focuses on the deportation of sixty-five male mental patients to China in 1935.He shows that asylum superintendents in British Columbia had fought for the deportation of mentally ill Chinese men as early as 1899. The chapter demonstrates that Chinese men in BC asylums received little treatment, were occasionally attacked by White patients and even attendants, and were often extremely isolated because of their poor command of English. This is the first work of which I am aware to deal explicitly with racial minorities within the asylum, and it provides a valuable addition to the asylum literature as well as to the literature on deportation. 

The most influential literature on anti-venereal campaigns in Canada has argued that women, particularly working-class women, were blamed for the spread of the disease. By contrast, Renisa Mawani argues that the efforts to control venereal disease between 1914 and 1935 were directed at all Canadians: men and women, rich and poor, moral and disreputable. Mawani shows that moral reformers were concerned with constructing normative heterosexualities for men well as for women and that men, as well as women, could be villains in the anti-venereal drama. 

The remaining chapters are not as strong as those just mentioned. Michaela Freund provides an engagingly written piece on venereal disease; Robert Adamoski explores the shift from the older institutional model of charity to the new “scientific” social work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Gerry Ferguson writes on the early history of asylums in British Columbia; Mimi Ajzenstadt examines the impact of prohibition and temperance on racial and ethnic minorities; and Jay Nelson contributes an analysis of fur-trade marriage that relies primarily on previously published secondary literature. 

My one real criticism is that Regulating Lives lacks an overall focus – both topically and theoretically. The introduction starts with an accessible account of the differences between theories of social control, moral regulation, and gov-ernmentality. The editors indicate that they hope that the collection will (1) debate the theoretical merits of social control, moral regulation, and govern-mentality and (2) compare regulation in British Columbia to the rest of Canada, and/or other White settler societies. Unfortunately, most of the authors neither address these theoretical debates nor make many explicit comparisons to other places. Despite this weakness, Regulating Lives provides a very solid addition to the history of regulation in British Columbia.