1. What is Crime?

1.3 Colonialism as Crime

Dr. Sean Ashley

Colonialism is responsible for many harms that evade criminalisation. Nielsen and Robyn (2019) explain that “[c]olonialism is a classic state crime that relies on violence and the threat of violence to achieve political and economics ends” (p. 1). As Paul (1993) points out, the means through which colonialism was initially pursued was often illegal within the context of its day, such as in the case of white settlers seizing land from Indigenous peoples being contrary to the settlers’ own laws. Other crimes of colonialism remain unpunished and unpursued, such as the deaths of thousands of Indigenous children within Canada’s residential school system (Milloy, 1999; Radio Canada International, 2021), and the Canadian state’s attempted and actual genocide of Indigenous peoples (Palmater, 2020). Viewing colonialism as a crime is not simply about recognising that the land was stolen and the original inhabitants harmed; it is about law’s power to define who is to be considered a worthy victim (Christie, 1986), and who can get away with murder.

Such examples demonstrate that law is not simply a matter of consensus, wherein a society’s norms become codified into a formal set of rules. Law is also an arena of conflict, and the outcome of this conflict determines who gets framed as a criminal. W.E.B. Du Bois recognised this fact over a century ago in his work on crime and race in the American South. He explains that “the police system of the South was originally designed to keep track” of all Black people, not only criminals, and when Black people were “freed, the first and almost universal device was to use the courts” to re-enslave the Black population (Du Bois, 2018, pp. 135-35). Du Bois understood that the power to define what was criminal could be used as a weapon against an entire group of people, a lesson the Black Lives Matter movement has once again brought to the forefront of public consciousness.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Sean Ashley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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