by Lesley Erickson. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press, 2011. 360pp. Cloth $90.00/$99.00 USD. ISBN 9780774818582. Paper $35.95/$37.95 USD. ISBN 9780774818599.

Reviewed by Michael Boudreau, Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice, St. Thomas University.


The mandate of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, who, along with the University of British Columbia Press (Law & Society Series), published WESTWARD BOUND, is to “encourage research and writing in the history of Canadian law” (p.xi). This mandate has certainly been fulfilled with the release of Lesley Erickson’s WESTWARD BOUND, which the Osgoode Society’s President (R. Roy McMurtry) and the Editor–in–Chief (Jim Phillips), describe as an “invaluable addition to the Osgoode Society’s socio–legal history collection” (p.xi). Indeed, WESTWARD BOUND makes an important contribution to our understanding of how the law, crime, and society interacted in Canada’s three Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Erickson utilizes criminal court cases, supplemented by Capital Case files, records from the federal Department of Indian Affairs, and newspapers, to explore the lives of women, notably Aboriginal women, and immigrants, and how ethnicity, gender, and class, influenced how the courts treated defendants and victims, and the crimes that brought them into conflict with one another. Spanning the years 1886 to 1940, with a particular focus on the interwar period, which Erickson rightly claims is an “under–examined period in history” (p.3), WESTWARD BOUND uses criminal cases as a lens through which to view four social settings in prairie society: the reserve; the city; the countryside; and the home.

The prairies witnessed a profound social and economic transformation during the 1886 to 1940 period. The onslaught of immigrants from Britain and eastern Europe, coupled with rapid urban–industrial development, resulted in the expansion of the Canadian nation, and the state, at the expense of the country’s Aboriginal peoples. Some Euro–Canadians (politicians, judges, justices of the peace, the police, and social reformers), were adamant that in order for the prairies to survive the ravages of modernity and blossom into a land of opportunity ‒ a “very garden of the Lord” (p.43) ‒ the region required a modern criminal justice system, founded on the English common law tradition. It is within this context that the criminal courts became “contact zones” between Aboriginal peoples and immigrants, capital and labour, British Canadians and new Canadians, and men and women. These “contact zones” also served as sites for conflict resolution, with mixed results for the parties involved, and in so doing, private matters which society had hoped to ignore, especially wife abuse and incest, became uncomfortably public. Similarly, the law operated as a [*476] “site for the performance of hegemony and resistance” (p.41), and while Erickson does underscore the subtle nuances of the law’s hegemonic prowess, a more fulsome critique of the place of the juridical in prairie society is missing in WESTWARD BOUND.

Aboriginal peoples in Western Canada found little solace, and even less justice, when they appeared before the courts, either as accused or victims of crime. As Erickson deftly notes, trials involving Aboriginals were conscious efforts to impose “British justice” on their societies and cultures. Moreover, these trials created, and reinforced, stereotypes of Aboriginal women as sexually immature and wanton, while First Nations men were cast as infantile and uncivilized. The enduring message from these trials was that Aboriginal peoples were doomed to extinction. This in turn allowed the federal government to justify the legal restrictions that were placed upon Aboriginal peoples’ daily lives through the 1876 Indian Act (including restricting their movement through the Pass System and preventing them from purchasing and consuming alcohol). By tracing this pattern of colonization, WESTWARD BOUND reveals two central components of Canada’s “subjugation” of First Nations peoples; first, the pervasive power of federally–appointed Indian Agents to bring criminal charges against Aboriginal peoples or to undermine in court the veracity of their testimonies. As Erickson posits, the ability, and willingness, of Indian Agents to dismiss as irrelevant Aboriginal women’s claims of being physically and sexually assaulted, meant that their voices were often ignored by judges, juries, and society generally. Secondly, Erickson illustrates the profound differences between Aboriginal law, which tended to be fluid and process-oriented, and Euro-Canadian law which was focussed on rules and rights. Erickson’s examination of Aboriginal marriage customs and divorce practices, the latter of which was forbidden by the Indian Act, demonstrates the divisions that the “Queen’s law” sowed within some prairie Aboriginal societies.

The law also regulated those segments of white society – working-class men and women and “dangerous” immigrants – who posed a threat to social order. The prairie prostitute, Erickson contends, represented a female variant of the “serpent in the wilderness” (p.79) whose sexuality had to be criminalized. Erickson discusses the campaigns that surfaced in the west to combat the scourges of prostitution and “white slavery”, campaigns that primarily targeted the female purveyors of sexual services, not their male clients, thereby underscoring the sexual double-standard that prostitutes (and women more broadly) faced in the eyes of the law and society. These efforts to rid society of the sin of prostitution, Erikson notes, also helped white, middle-class women to carve out a space for respectable femininity and ultimately to confine public sexuality to the margins of the urban landscape. “Hired hands” (agricultural labourers), while necessary to the success of the farming economy, were also considered to be an unwanted element of prairie society. Their encounters with the law included cases of sexual violence, along with the seduction and abduction of women. And since these men were held in such low regard by society – they were men “who had failed in pretty nearly every walk of [*477] life” (p.127) – judges or juries usually found them guilty of their suspected crimes and handed them harsh sentences. In essence, the law was used to keep these men, who many felt did not live up to the ideal of prairie masculinity, in their place. Erickson’s analysis of the hired hands’ cases reminds us that violence against women was not limited to cities but also occurred in farm households and the so-called idyllic country-side of the west.

Nevertheless, similar to their eastern-Canadian counterparts, reformers and judicial officials in the prairies remained steadfast in their belief that the modern city was the main locus of society’s ills. For it was in the city, they argued, that drugs, abortion, domestic violence (including wife murder), and incest, could be found. WESTWARD BOUND contains a rich discussion of how the courts handled these offences and the role that gender stereotypes and racism played in determining the outcomes of the trials. However, Erickson needed to say much more about how the police targeted Asian men (“china boy[s]”) for their involvement in the drug trade and their alleged attempts to enslave white women to the opium pipe, along with efforts to detect juvenile delinquency and save the “waifs and strays of the city” for the advancement of prairie society. This would have allowed for further comparisons of the prairies with other parts of Canada in terms of assessing how each responded to the challenges of modernity (Boudreau 2012). For as Erickson aptly concludes, by making the city the source of sin and vice, the criminal justice system and social reformers could ignore the real socio-economic problems and racism that plagued working-class women and men, immigrants, and Aboriginal peoples.

Erickson is to be commended for shedding light on two specific crimes which have not received a great deal of scholarly attention in Canada; abortion and incest. Prosecutions for abortions (“illegal operations”) in the west mirrored cases in other Canadian provinces and cities (including Halifax); the women were young and tended to act alone, but at times they were accompanied by a male suitor, and the procedures were performed by older women, often “practical nurses”, who bore the brunt of prosecutorial authority. Abortion was condemned as a vile attempt by women to control their fertility, especially at a time when fears of “race suicide” were rampant in the prairies. But this condemnation did not extend to the men who played a part in helping women procure an abortion as they usually received a lenient sentence, or were not charged, in exchange for their testimony against the abortionist. As Erickson surmises, deviant, modern women (abortionists, prostitutes, and women who engaged in premarital sex), did not deserve justice. Rather, justice was reserved for passive, chaste women who embodied, if not exuded, respectability. Some of these women, and girls, included those who accused their fathers or brothers of having unwanted sexual relations with them. Unlike judges and juries in eastern Canada, their colleagues in the west were more willing to convict and punish men who committed incest, a “crime without a name” (p.193), as well as spousal abuse. For as Erickson asserts, these unspeakable acts were associated with the immorality of immigrant and working-class families on the prairies [*478] who needed to be shown the error of their ways.

WESTWARD BOUND is a welcomed addition to Canadian criminal justice, legal, and social historiography, a fact that was formally acknowledged in 2011 by the Canadian Law and Society Association who awarded WESTWARD BOUND an honourable mention in its book prize competition. Lesley Erickson has expanded our knowledge of how the law and criminal courts discriminated against women and ethnic minorities during the formative years of prairie settlement and development. Moreover, by using criminal case files to “unlock how sexuality, violence, and the law shaped colonialism and nation building in Canada” (p.229), WESTWARD BOUND has exposed the “dark side” of modernity in the prairies. Erickson has also ably demonstrated that “justice”, while a cornerstone of the rule of law, was more often than not inflicted upon, rather than granted to, Aboriginal peoples, working-class women and men, and immigrants in the prairies.

Given the breath of regional, provincial, urban, and rural studies of crime, the law, and society in Canada, of which WESTWARD BOUND is a perfect example, the time has certainly come for scholars to write a “national” history of law and order in Canada.


Boudreau, Michael. 2012. CITY OF ORDER: CRIME AND SOCIETY IN HALIFAX, 1918–1935. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press.

Copyright 2013 by the Author, Michael Boudreau.