- Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500 by Marcel Martel
It did not take long after the election of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for attention to turn to the question of when the party’s controversial promise to legalize marijuana would be implemented. Current political debate about relaxing Canada’s marijuana laws or loosening the regulations on alcohol sales echoes a long history of concern and even outrage over the moderation of “bad” behaviour and indulgences. As Marcel Martel illustrates in Canada the Good: A Short History of Vice since 1500, the regulation of “vices” has been a constant element of public and political discussion throughout Canadian history.
This book is a useful overview of an interesting theme in Canadian history, and it is certainly not short of fascinating examples. Martel offers [End Page 326] an ambitious examination of the history of vices in Canadian history, stretching as far back as the voyages of Jacques Cartier to North America in the sixteenth century. Defining vice is a difficult task, given the shifting of social and religious attitudes over the course of Canadian history. Martel focuses on behaviours and practices that he considers to be the most common areas of state and societal concern, and chapters examine the specific examples of sexuality, alcohol, gambling, drugs, and tobacco. Some topics earn more extensive analysis than others; in particular, the space devoted to the second half of the twentieth century is far more detailed than any section before it. The description of the regulation of abortion in the later nineteenth century, for example, is much more substantive than the analysis of gambling in the same period. This is a reflection of the fact that not all vices are subject to the same level of concern and controversy.
As might be expected, the breadth of the book sacrifices depth, and, unfortunately, there is little room to provide extensive detail on any single issue that is covered. For this reason, readers already familiar with Canadian social history will find little that is particularly new in this book. Much of the content touched on has been more substantively covered in other studies, such as Craig Heron’s study of alcohol, Suzanne Morton’s book on gambling, or even Martel’s own work on marijuana regulations. Indeed, much of the information in Canada the Good is based on secondary studies on specific vices in Canadian history.
For undergraduate readers or non-specialists interested in understanding vices and their moral and legal regulation in Canada’s past, this book provides a succinct but comprehensive overview. The strength of this work is its ability to navigate swiftly through over 500 years of history and locate specific moments and examples that shaped the broader narrative of regulation and moral panic. What emerges from this narrative is not so much a story of change over time as an indication of enduring perceptions and prejudices. Though attitudes toward various vices may appear to relax over time, the worries about societal and personal harm are a persistent aspect of the history of vice in Canada. It is a story that is still very much unfolding. Recent court decisions about prostitution and the growing political will to re-examine the criminality of marijuana are two prominent examples. As Martel’s book indicates, these impassioned debates are only the latest flashpoints in the continuing story of vice in Canada. [End Page 327]