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Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500. Marcel Martel. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014. Pp. vi + 189, $29.99 paper

This accessible and lively survey has a somewhat misleading subtitle. It is not a history of the acts and desires that in different historical periods have been seen as vices but, rather, an account of how antivice campaigns have helped to shape Canadian society and the Canadian state. This is not surprising. The social history of “vice” itself has [End Page 137] certainly been documented: in a few important works in the history of sexuality; in Craig Heron’s pioneering work Booze: A Distilled History (Between the Lines, 2003); and, to some extent, in histories of gambling and drug use. Yet, by and large, in Canada as elsewhere, historians have focused more on the reformers than on the targets of reform, and a survey for the general public is bound to reflect this bias. The by now somewhat old-fashioned focus on reformers (rather than resistant minorities) may make the book less appealing to social historians. However, by contrast, I teach a large undergraduate criminology course on “the legal regulation of morality,” which can only have a small amount of historical content, and this book could serve as one of the texts.

Martel’s survey is unusual among English-language studies in that it not only devotes much space to developments in New France but also considers the Catholic Church – in English Canada as well as in Quebec – as a central actor in moral regulation throughout all historical periods. Arguably too much attention is devoted to the pronouncements of bishops, especially for the late twentieth century, when Catholics came to ignore church teachings on subjects such as birth control and even abortion. But it is probably healthy for anglophone Canadians to consider how the history of moral reform in Canada looks when one is not focused on the Protestant churches, although it would have been useful to add an acknowledgement of the non-Christian religious groups that have recently come to play a role in electoral politics, at least in the greater Toronto area. Similarly, it is useful for anglophone Canadians to see the issue of selling alcoholic drinks to Aboriginals situated in its original New France context, instead of it being seen primarily as an issue in western Canadian history. The francophone perspective may perhaps be responsible for some mistakes. For example, Nellie McClung is portrayed as a warmonger, which is quite misleading. However, overall, given the anglophone and Protestant bias of most of the existing English-language work on moral regulation in Canada, Martel’s perspective is useful.

The organization of the book, however, leaves much to be desired. There are only four chapters, each covering an overly long historical period. Thus, the 1920s and 1930s, which arguably represent a new era in moral regulation both in the realm of sexuality and in regard to the persistent issue of alcohol, virtually disappear in Martel’s account. A separate chapter on the interwar period, however brief, would have been warranted. Within each chapter, issues are discussed one at a time, but without subheadings, which leads to chronological [End Page 138] confusion and makes the book less than appealing for teaching. For example, on page 104, the story of abortion and its eventual decriminalization comes to an end in the 1980s; then, without any transition, we jump back in the next paragraph to 1944 and the anti-homosexual campaigns that swept the armed forces and the government. Dividing each chapter into short sections would have made much more sense.

Finally, Martel’s ambitious effort to end in the present day leads to some inconsistencies. For example, an Ontario Liberal government 2013 policy on wine and beer sales in convenience stores is mentioned (though the reader is not told the government changed its mind). By contrast, the story of prostitution law is not taken beyond 2010. There is no mention of either the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Bedford case nor, more problematically, the 2012 decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal. Prostitution law is arguably the most important moral...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-1093
Print ISSN
0008-3755
Pages
pp. 137-139
Launched on MUSE
2015-03-11
Open Access
No
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