4. Race and Crime

4.2 Colonialism and Criminal Justice

Dr. Michael Ma

As a term of reference, “colonialism” often refers to how European expansionism moved throughout the world beginning in the 15th century. The “new world” of the Americas was “discovered” by European explorers who understood their colonial expansion as a way to claim territory and riches and tame “savages” through the introduction of European logic, science, rule of law, government, trade and religion (Said, 1978). This “doctrine of discovery” is based on the legal concept terra nulliusmeaning that the “newly discovered” territories belonged to nobody and could therefore be claimed by occupation (see Why Pope Francis faces calls to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery).

The European colonisation of the “new worlds” took different forms. In Canada, colonisation and settlement followed a process of agreements or treaties that were allegedly settled between Indigenous nations and colonial forces of Britain and France. However, these agreements and treaties were also wilfully ignored by the colonial powers. The emergence of the Canadian confederation (1867) fundamentally altered the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the newly formed Canadian government (Coyle & Borrows, 2017; Kirkby, 2019).

Coinciding with European expansionism was the rise of nationhood—the idea that the world is divided into distinct nations made up of peoples with inherent ethnic, cultural, and even biological characteristics (Calhoun, 1997). During colonial expansion, however, European notions of difference began to focus on categorising human groups based on skin pigmentation and facial/bodily features associated with emerging scientific notions of human evolutionary development. Scientific racism proved to be a useful tool for colonialism. Studies like Blumenbach’s seemed to provide an objective confirmation of a hierarchy of racial order and helped generate a myth of Western European racial superiority that allowed for the colonisation of the Americas (Painter, 2010). Our contemporary everyday use of the term “Caucasian” is an illustration of the long-lasting and ongoing power of this discredited scholarship. It was the scholar W.E.B. du Bois who pointed out that the 19th and 20th centuries were organised by a “color line”, whereby society is organised by a logic of “the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (Du Bois, 1996, p. 7).

Colonisation is the implementation of a political, legal, and economic system that is controlled through a foreign sovereign authority. Therefore, under the British Empire, a common flag represented all colonies that were part of the nation. The colonising force views the relationship between the “metropole” (or “motherland”) and its colonies as paternalistic, whereby the metropolitan centre of the Empire led a civilising mission that extended throughout the colonies. Part of this mission involved the maintenance of order and the assertion of authority over the new territories via criminal justice systems based on European models.

English criminal law, which applied to the early colonies, became the basis for the first Canadian criminal code after the confederation of Canada in 1867. In 1873, Sir John A. MacDonald deployed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP)—originally named the “Royal Northwest Mounted Police”—which was modelled on existing British police forces. The British criminal justice system developed as part of a tradition of governance based on Western European notions of property, ontology, and religion. The British tradition of maintaining order was radically different from Indigenous practices, and its practices were often deployed against the interests of the Indigenous population.

Canadian colonialism was based on resource extraction and trade. Earlier treaty agreements between Britain/France and Indigenous peoples put limits on the colonial appetites for expanding the lucrative fur trade and exploiting the land and natural resources. Eventually, treaties stripped Indigenous peoples of title to land and sovereignty and restricted their movement and freedom on the land (Asch, 2014; Borrows, 1997). The RCMP was an important party to this history of dispossession because they were used to enforce the Indian Act (1876) that controlled and disciplined Indigenous peoples without their consent (see Historical events in RCMP-Indigenous relations for more information on the role of RCMP). Indian agents working in conjunction with the RCMP enforced a repressive pass system that denied entry and exit from a reserve without the permission of the state agent. As a system of border control, which led to the criminalisation of Indigenous life, the reserve became a central part of Canada’s system of colonial control.

The RCMP played a key institutional role in ensuring the cooperation and subjugation of Indigenous peoples. For example, to protect and expand settler-colonial interests, the RCMP helped remove the legitimate Métis government established in Manitoba in 1870 through military engagement. It fought Indigenous peoples to help expand the Canadian Pacific Railway that allowed settler-corporate expansion over unceded Indigenous territory. It was instrumental in relocating Indigenous peoples who were dispossessed of their lands and territory. They enforced the illegal pass system, suppressed cultural practices (e.g., the sun dance and potlatch, see About Potlatch 67–67) and helped distribute lands to settlers that were illegally acquired and in breach of Numbered Treaties. As truant officers, the RCMP captured and returned children who ran away from residential schools.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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

Share This Book