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Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society

By Lesley Erickson

Review By Chris Herbert

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 174-75

Westward Bound is a work of remarkable scope and depth. Covering the period from 1886 to 1940, Lesley Erickson uses records from local courts, the Department of Indian Affairs, and the North West Mounted Police to explore how the law functioned to shore up the Anglo-Canadian settler society of the Prairie provinces. Admirably, Erickson does not tell a simple story of top-down legal authority creating a particular colonial order. Instead, she details how various subordinated groups (women, Aboriginals, eastern European immigrants, prostitutes, and farm labourers, among others) contested, resisted, and manipulated Anglo-Canadian assumptions of superiority. The result is a complex and nuanced picture of the meanings and repercussions of sex and violence in the Canadian west.

Each chapter in Westward Bound focuses on a particular type of crime or groups of related crimes. Chapter Two explores the experiences of Aboriginals facing prosecution or regulation for a wide variety of crimes, including rape, incest, murder, drinking, and prostitution. Chapter Three focuses on prostitutes and prostitution, while Chapter Four looks at the relationship between immigrant farm labour, Anglo-Canadian farming families, and charges of seduction and rape. Emphasizing abortion, seduction, and assault, Chapter Five deals with different understandings of urban and rural spaces. Chapter Six analyzes how the legal system acted to shore up the patriarchal family in cases of incest, assault, and murder, while Chapter Seven examines the debate over female offenders and the death penalty.

To no one’s surprise, Erickson finds that the Canadian legal system of the Prairies acted to shape and strengthen a colonial social hierarchy that placed Anglo-Canadian men at the head of society and at the head of families. An Anglo-Canadian judiciary, police force, and Indian Affairs bureaucracy used criminal trials as a stage to convey lessons about Anglo-Canadian society, lessons that stressed the prerogatives and power of Anglo-Canadians. But it is when Erickson explores how this process of using criminal trials as a way to enact an idealized social order actually functioned that she makes some of her most engaging and original contributions to the literature on the formation of colonial society, not only in Canada, but globally.

Many readers will be surprised to discover that the biases of a Canadian legal system that sought to maintain colonial categories and national boundaries did not translate into across-the-board harsher sentences for socially marginal offenders. Instead, socially marginal offenders routinely received acquittals, reduced sentences, and fines in lieu of jail time. At the local level, the Canadian justice system on the Prairies was less concerned with meting out harsh punishment than it was intent on stabilizing a particular social hierarchy. Part of the ideology that underlay this social hierarchy assumed that socially marginal peoples such as immigrants, prostitutes, and Aboriginals were ignorant of the law, mentally deficient, irrational, and the products of tainted upbringings. Defendants who went along with these stereotypes usually received lenient treatment from a legal system anxious to portray itself as benevolent and equitable, often in stark contrast to the perceived inequity of the American legal system. Erickson reveals how a wide range of offenders used prevailing stereotypes to secure lesser sentences or acquittals at the cost of strengthening the logic of colonialism. However, when offenders refused to conform to these stereotypes or when their alleged crimes challenged the social hierarchy, usually by victimizing middle-class Anglo-Canadians, then the Canadian legal system responded harshly. Though Erickson occasionally uses British Columbia as a point of comparison, her study, understandably, remains focused on the Prairies. It would be interesting to know how Erickson’s findings apply to the settler society west of the Rockies, and this fine book whets the appetite for such a study.


Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law, and the Making of a Settler Society.
By Lesley Erickson 
Vancouver:  University of British Columbia Press, 2011. 360 pp, $34.95 paper