- Westward Bound: Sex, violence, the law, and the making of settler society
Lesley Erickson's fascinating new survey uses prairie regional court records to explore the creation, perpetuation and subversion of race- and gender-based mythologies of crime and victimhood between 1886 and 1940 in western Canada. The book draws from court cases during five decades within in five judicial districts in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Questions related to women's entanglement in racist and sexist systems of violence loom large in Erickson's timely book. As discussed further in her introduction, her work responds in part to the legacy of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in the Canadian West, including Pamela George, an Aboriginal woman killed in 1995 by two young White Saskatchewan men, in a field where Erickson used to play as a child. Proceeding from more recent instances of gendered and racist violence that permeate western Canadian communities, courts and everyday space, Erickson examines a longer history of gendered and racialized discourses of victimhood and criminality on the Canadian prairies.
Published as part of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History series, Erickson's book joins a broader body of scholarship on sexual regulation and the consolidation and contestation of gendered and racialized identities in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Canada. As in other critical histories of both the sex trade and heterosexual marriage and companionship in the Canadian West, Erickson balances her coverage of state regulation with defendants' myriad of responses. The lived experiences and voices of western Canadian women resisting domestic and sexual violence as well as those of madams and other women involved in the sex trade ground her discussion of larger developments in the region. Her presentation of both the success and limits of women's agency in court records and criminalized activities is particularly strong. Employing an intriguing array of cases, she traces the challenges that these and other court cases and defense strategies posed to "mythic images of Canada's prairie West as a land of opportunity, a place of fruitful land and happy homes" (12). So doing, Erickson unveils a fascinating series of other criminal specters that haunted regional court systems, social order and popular imagination in western Canada.
Westward Bound is organized thematically, according to actual cases shaped by popular caricatures of prairie offenders. The main argument is that the courts "served as a stage upon which larger developments and conflicts—between Native and newcomer, men and women, capital and labour and adults and youth—played out" (12). Each chapter focuses on a series of narratives and cases that hinged on racial, gender and class stereotypes, including those that evoked images of sexually aggressive Aboriginal men, prairie prostitutes, immigrant wife-murderers, and predatory farmhands. The prosecution of such figures, writes Erickson, did not simply bolster dominant cultural values, but transformed courtrooms into venues in which defendants could resist or manipulate stereotypes about their race, class and gender to benefit their cases.
Erickson's survey framework makes several important contributions to scholarship on colonialism in the Canadian West. The project traverses numerous English-speaking, French-speaking, ethnic and Indigenous communities in the region during this period and offers a broader overview that scholars will find beneficial for an array of future investigations. The scope of the study extends to 1940 in a field where analyses of settler society often end on the eve of World War One. This scope reflects the distinct shape of the colonial project in the Canadian West, particularly its more recent and arguably ongoing features. Erickson's substantive incorporation of elements beyond the text, including courthouse architecture, prairie visual culture and police photography, also enliven her discussion of legal and sociocultural developments.
The book's survey of five districts is compelling, though additional information regarding the extents to which these areas differed would have further strengthened Erickson's study. For example, references to the frequency with which Aboriginal women became involved in the sex trade appear to vary between cities and rural centres in Manitoba and Alberta in the...