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  • Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500 by Marcel Martel
  • Tom Mitchell
Marcel Martel, Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500 (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2014)

In Canada the Good, Marcel Martel offers an engaging and comprehensive account of how Canadian society has “dealt with vice over the last five hundred years.” (2) The focus here concerns the “constraints put in place by collectivities, institutions, and the state on how individuals must behave in society, and what is expected from them.” (3) Martel’s [End Page 235] vices of choice include forms of sexuality, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gambling.

Canada the Good begins with a descriptive account from above of the French state and the Roman Catholic Church as forces of European morality in the New World in the years 1500 to 1700. He relates a familiar story. The growing mutual dependence of First Nations and French colonizers curbed the drive of the Church and state to reform the perceived vices – sexual promiscuity, alcohol consumption and gambling – of First Nations. Commerce, Martel tells us, trumped morality.

In his account of the colonial era, 1700 to 1850, Martel explores the mechanisms available to the Roman Catholic Church to impose moral discipline on its adherents. There were limitations on the Church’s power: too few priests, uncooperative habitants, and state toleration of prostitution. The state did crack down on prostitutes periodically under vagrancy laws; the prosecution of mostly non-Francophone women, Martel argues, reflected how “class, gender, and ethnicity shaped law enforcement.” (32) Martel notes that same-sex prosecutions were rare. He surmises that there were “other mechanisms” to deal with what were termed “crimes against nature.” (33)

Outside Catholic regions of British North America after the conquest “Protestant officials” from various denominations sought to shape a moral order. Here no distinction is made between the established Anglican Church and evangelical denominations in their ability to exercise influence within the state or over larger or smaller sections of the colonial population. He draws our attention to the role of denominational “tribunals” that heard cases dealing with horse racing, drinking, and adultery. Here Martel explains moral discipline was applied in a gendered fashion – men controlled the disciplinary process and more women than men faced investigation. He provides accounts from above of the state’s handling of abortion, infanticide, and divorce. He explores how social control – mostly through the charivaris - was also exercised within communities in an era when “the boundaries of privacy were porous.” (38)

Canada the Good characterizes the years 1850 to 1920 as an era in which vice was in retreat, driven to ground by triumphant reformers. The Industrial Revolution “radically transformed society in last half of 19th century,” and led Christians “from various denominations to launch a massive sustained campaign targeting a series of vices that caused according to them social upheaval and decay.” (152) Success of moral reformers depended upon their ability to reach out to other groups and build coalitions. Relying on Alan Hunt, Martel argues that moral regulation movements succeeded to the degree that they could build coalitions of groups with “different ideological, political and social agendas.” Their campaigns were rooted in “normative narratives” that targeted behavior defined as “intrinsically bad, wrong or immoral.” (51)

Martel makes general reference to an undifferentiated Social Gospel movement and to those committed to the wisdom of eugenics. He draws our attention to campaigns again polygamy, prostitution, abortion, and homosexuality and to the growing role of physicians as “new moral entrepreneurs.” (154) The decades-long campaign against the consumption of alcohol and the response of the alcohol lobby and the state federally and provincially is canvassed. Campaigns against narcotics and tobacco are reviewed. The growing role of the state in the regulation and criminalization of vice is explored. Politicians “came to agree that the state could have a role in implementing a [End Page 236] morally based order as means to being social peace.” (153) The state deployed legislation to strength the Christian moral order by imposing criminal penalties for those abortionists, homosexuals, and drug users but it did so as a secondary locus of moral regulation drawn...


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