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Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society (review)

From: The Canadian Historical Review
Volume 85, Number 1, March 2004
pp. 189-191 | 10.1353/can.2004.0043

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The Canadian Historical Review 85.1 (2004) 189-191

Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society. Edited by Sherene Razack. Toronto, Ont.: Between the Lines 2002. Pp. x, 310, illus. $24.95

It wasn't that long ago that analyzing Canada's past as a chapter in colonialism was business-as-usual for historians. Imperial perspectives fell out of fashion over the course of the twentieth century as historians embraced continental and national explanatory frameworks. In the past few years scholars have begun to return to the terrain of empires, colonies, metropoles, and peripheries, although in new ways and, perhaps more important, with new political and intellectual goals. Sherene Razack's edited collection, Race, Space, and the Law: Unmapping a White Settler Society, represents an important contribution to this historiographical shift.

Razack's introductory essay positions the essays as collectively examining 'how place becomes race through the law' in a white settler society. Her framing of Canada as a white settler society rejects the unhelpful and too-common separation of Aborigional and migrant issues. Razack argues that the dominant ideology of settler imperialism consigns Aborigional peoples 'forever to an earlier space and time,' positions people of colour as terminal 'late arrivals,' and attributes both agency and innocence to European settlers. The task of the essays that follow, she argues, is to 'unmap' these connections by challenging 'the racelessness of the law and the amnesia that allows white subjects to be produced as innocent, entitled, rational, and legitimate.'

A major analytic tool used for this 'unmapping' is history. Bonita Lawrence's 'Rewriting Histories of the Land: Colonization and Indigenous Resistance in Eastern Canada' offers a new treatment of secondary studies and a suggestive call for a scholarship where indigenous communities are 'final arbiters of their own histories.' Renisa Mawani utilizes the records of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century state to craft a careful analysis of how liquor laws in British Columbia worked to produce racial subjects and limit the abilities of 'Indians' to make claims on the state. Mona Oikawa's provocative 'Cartographies of Violence: Women, Memory, and the Subject(s) of the "Internment"' examines the testimonies of Japanese Canadian women to reinterpret the incarceration of the Second World War and provide a powerful 'counter-map to a sanitized landscape of national forgetting.' Jennifer J. Nelson also deals with racialized space and memory, in this case the African Canadian community of Africville. She argues that Africville was legally regulated as a 'degenerate site' from the outset and that we must 'insist that history be alive and visible' if we want to resist the official story of racism and poverty.

Other essays remind us that these issues are more than the spectres of a distant past. Razack's trenchant contribution analyzes the murder of Annishnabe Pamela George in Regina in 1995. She argues that the trial located George in a 'space of prostitution and Aborigionality' and her killers 'far removed from this zone.' Carol Schick takes us to the differently racialized space of the university, showing how multiculturalism can ironically work to preserve white privilege. Sheila Dawn Gill moves to the Manitoba Legislature and examines a series of events that occurred after Cree opposition member Oscar Lahtin's mention of racism was deemed 'unparliamentary' in 1995. This, she argues, demonstrates the 'unspeakability of racism' in liberal democratic institutions. Engin F. Isin and Myer Siemiatycki offer a refreshing glimpse of popular resistance. They analyze Muslim groups' demands for mosques in Toronto, arguing that it represents a profound challenge to ideologies of Western citizenship. Sheryl Nestle examines how race figures in the emergence of legalized midwifery in Ontario, characterizing it as an example of how '"First World" feminists make use of imperial subject positions in their struggle for localized forms of gender justice.'

These essays are strongest when they are most grounded and pointed. Mawani, Oikawa, Razack, and Gill each demonstrate the enormous potential of putting particular events under the analytic lens. This collection is unusual in its broad geographic coverage of Canada, but...