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Reviewed by:
  • On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849–1871
  • Fiona Paisley
Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849–1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001)

On the Edge of Empire is a wonderful study of the formation of an early colonial society. Perry provides us with an exemplary work — beautifully structured, extremely well written and meticulously researched. By bringing together colonial and migration histories, she exposes the ‘double need’ of colonial societies, dispossession of indigenous peoples and the building of a settler population. And through careful analysis, she contrasts the colonial fiction that dispossession and resettlement are discrete aspects of the colonizing project with the complexities of British Columbian gender and race relations. Thus she reveals the ‘fragile heart’ (123) of colonization in early British Columbia and elsewhere. She argues compellingly that it is through gender that the ‘abiding bonds’ between dispossession and resettlement are most discernable and the considerable social powers of those bonds become apparent.

Perry makes great use of extensive primary research to contrast the anxieties of journalists, missionaries and officials for the purity of white settlement with the interconnected lives of First Nations peoples and early settlers. Holding the complexity of her material to the clarity of her argument, she begins with white men’s homosocial culture, continues with mixed race relations, and then considers in turn aims to reform each. Finally she shifts her attention to the incoming populations of white women, discussing their inevitable failure to provide the ‘civilising’ force aniticipated by social reformers. Perry interweaves her account with individual stories, statistics, missionary accounts, government documents, and a wealth of other sources including newspaper articles, letters, diaries, poems, illustrations and photographs. The latter are scattered throughout the text to great effect; along with the extensive footnotes and bibliography they indicate that University of Toronto Press’ Studies in Gender and History is prepared to support excellent research as it deserves. This book is a delight to read and will provide a great resource to teachers and researchers alike.

Much of this book is a timely application of recent work in whiteness, such as that by Ruth Frankenberg. In On the Edge of Empire, Perry argues that contemporary criticisms of white male sociality in British Columbia expressed a middle-class pessimism towards masculinity — white men had to be regulated, whether by white women or through family and other normative institutions, if they were to behave appropriately as citizens and civilizers most particularly in the colonial context. But white men on the frontier lived suspiciously close to First Nations peoples, bringing whiteness and the legitimacy of the colony itself into question. Fears about the blurring of boundaries between settlers and natives were given new impetus during the smallpox epidemic of the early 1860s, ‘crystallising white fears of sexual and social contact in the Aboriginal community’. (111) The goal to eradicate First Nations peoples from the homes and urban spaces of British Columbia ultimately foundered on the high incidence of mixed race relations especially between white men and First Nations women. While these were never abolished, neither could they be made over to suit the colonial imaginary where impossible boundaries between colonized and colonizer were clear and complete.

To prospective immigrants in Britain British Columbia was a land of good wages, land, gold, all possible through honest work. This was the ‘white man’s province’ of colonial rhetoric. Here the Aboriginal population was represented as cooperative and in any case dying out, and even the climate was suited to the white man, unlike Canada (too cold) and Australia (too hot). White women brought over by immigration schemes were to reform outback homosocial culture, intervene in the central ‘problem’ of white-Aboriginal conjugal relations, and at the same time provide much needed domestic servants while alleviating Britain’s population pressure. While white women were to bring respectability and morality, anxieties about their moral standing and status further legitimated segregationist goals. Keeping these women ‘respectable’ became another way for reformers to promote the necessary exclusion of First Nations peoples from urban areas. Perry finds that: ‘white women, like their male counterparts, frequently failed...

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