by Renisa Mawani. Vancouver, UBC Press, 2009. 288pp. Cloth. $85.00. ISBN: 9780774816335. Paper . $32.95. ISBN: 9780774816342.

Reviewed by David Murray, Department of History, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Email: dmurray [at]


Renisa Mawani, a sociologist, tells us in her first chapter that her book pursues the dynamics of European efforts to “civilize” and “deterritorialize” indigenous peoples and Chinese immigrants in British Columbia “by exploring the transnational and intersecting lineaments of colonial projects, the social and juridical knowledges that imperial circuits and mobilities produced, as well as the legal responses and modalities of governance that were inspired and enabled through the colonial regime’s production of competing racial truths” (p.4). This is, to say the least, quite a mouthful and begs the question, what is her key theme or themes?

There was, as Mawani points out, a growing and racially diverse population in the emergent colony (later province) of British Columbia in the mid to late nineteenth century which presented a variety of challenges to the majority European population and those who governed B.C. She believes, in her words, “that placing aboriginal European contact and Chinese migration in the same conceptual lens might illuminate the variegated forms, patterns and rhythms that underpinned colonial encounters and the racial epistemologies and modes of regulation that contoured imperial terrains” (p.7). But what exactly she intends by the use of the term “colonial” is never clarified completely, leaving the reader confused by a range of possible definitions and ambiguities. On p.100, for example, Mawani uses the terms “colonial administration,” “colonial government,” “colonial authorities” and “colonial truths” in a discussion about prostitution in the 1870s. The historian might point out that Canada became self-governing in 1867 and British Columbia joined the federation in 1871 as a fully-fledged province, the year the book begins. There may certainly be arguments to support the presence of a continuing colonial mentality in the new Dominion and in its westernmost province of British Columbia, especially in relation to the treatment of indigenous peoples and Asian migrants, but they need to be made more precisely and historically.

She argues that she is “less interested in producing a conventional historical narrative and more concerned with navigating and building a conceptual argument about the plurality of racisms in the colonial contact zone, one that brings histories of aboriginal-European contact into dialogue with those of Chinese migration” (p.30). Her argument is based heavily on Foucault and other post-colonial theorists. At times the superstructure of theory seems almost too heavy to rest on the more fragile structure of underlying historical [*67] evidence, intriguing though her examples are. In places the theory even threatens to overwhelm the historical examples.

In chapter three on “(White) Slavery, Colonial Knowledges and the Rise of State Racisms,” she begins with an examination of the rise of (white) slavery fears among the European population of B.C. early in the twentieth century, but she states that her real interests are “the racial knowledges, state racisms, and forms of governance they made possible” (p.81). She concludes that the prostitute in British Columbia “was a more ambivalent figure saturated by competing racial truths and targeted by unevenly applied laws and policies” (p.85). Here her argument is more successful, illuminating what she terms “discourses of slavery and prostitution [that] were both muddled and widespread” in the province (p.98).

Mawani also has a unique perspective in discussing juridical truths. She does not generally review judicial decisions or follow specific legal cases, pointing out in her conclusion that “juridical truths about race were not produced in the courtroom alone” (p.209). Instead she incorporates the law as part of her wider argument. For example, she briefly discusses the provisions of the Indian Act passed in the 1870s that sought to remedy aboriginal prostitution through laws and then tells us that when the Canadian government consolidated the Criminal Code of Canada in one act in 1892, the relevant legislation on prostitution was transferred to this Criminal Code in order to punish both Indians and non-Indians alike. Mawani highlights the fact that this did not work in British Columbia, any more than it likely worked elsewhere. In B.C. Indian Agents argued that the law was not likely to be a very effective tool against Indian prostitution. The Dominion Department of Indian Affairs went even further, suggesting that its mandate did not include prosecuting Indians for prostitution offences, whereas it did acknowledge a responsibility to prosecute liquor offences because revenue was involved. The Department’s philosophy was that “where a revenue is derived the work should be done and expenses borne by the Department which benefits from the revenue” (p.101).

The main strength of Mawani’s monograph is her discussion of the wide range and complexity of cross racial encounters in B.C., encompassing labor in the salmon canneries, prostitution and the illegal liquor trade. The prohibition of liquor sales to the Indians was part of the Indian Act, and in B.C. complaints about Chinese men illegally selling liquor to the Indians were commonplace. For Mawani the growing traffic in illegal liquor “consolidated two distinct but related rationalities of government: the moral improvement and advancement of aboriginal peoples and the expulsion and exclusion of Chinese migrants” (p.126). She uses the Royal Commission on Liquor Traffic in Canada (1894) to demonstrate how government officials and missionary agents “created and ordered racial subjectivities” (p.126) Mawani contends that liquor regulation in British Columbia was really another attempt to restrict “interracial proximities in geographical terms” (p.127). [*68]

She does effectively use one legal case from 1906 involving the prosecution of a white man named Hughes for illegally selling liquor to an Indian to illustrate how “the indeterminacies of racial identity” – i.e. the difficulty of actually determining who was and who was not an Indian – confounded the authorities in their efforts to control the illegal trade in liquor to the aboriginal population. Hughes’s appeal against his conviction was allowed after the judge determined that the man who bought the liquor was not an Indian based on contemporary testimony. For Mawani, the Hughes case illustrates that the way “Indianness” was determined, through a “dual emphasis on biology and history,” also underlined how “elusive, fraught and difficult to locate on the ground” such a definition could be (p.177). The definition was crucial to a number of legal cases, especially those arising from prosecutions over liquor offences, and this meant that the continuing ambiguity had serious consequences for the people concerned.

Mawani ends her book on a more positive note, chronicling efforts in 2005 by the Nisga’a nation and the Chinese Canadians in Vancouver to effect a reconciliation and again the following year when both aboriginal and Chinese war veterans walked together at the head of the Chinese New Year parade. Mawani acknowledges that she has asked a different set of questions to illuminate what she terms “British Columbia’s colonial contact zone” and in the hope that they might “eventually lead to new ways of living and being.” Her book is not an easy read, but it is based on thorough scholarship. The issues of race in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century British Columbia resonate far beyond the borders of Canada’s westernmost province.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, David Murray.