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March 31, 2017

A Smattering of Criminology

Reuel S. Amdur

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Lisa Monchalin's book The Colonial Problem (University of Toronto Press, 2016) attempts too much and too little. Her subtitle: "An Indigenous Perspective on Crime and Injustice in Canada." It is intended as a criminology textbook. Let's begin with the "too much."

She tells us in the introduction that in order to move forward Aboriginals must address the issue of the colonial relationship.  That sounds nice, but it hardly makes much sense when applied to a young offender engaged in a gang war with a gang from another neighbourhood, or to a shoplifter.  She repeats the common aphorism that we “settlers” are living on stolen land.  Aside from Antarctica, where on earth is there a square inch of land that has not been stolen?  And even in Antarctica there are overlapping claims.  As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon famously declared, “Property is theft.”  Do the French have to deal with the fact of Caesar’s conquest in order to move forward?

Her big picture perspective is that of the righteous Aboriginals invaded by the wicked colonials, taking their land.  There were obviously many cases of brutal wrong-doing by white newcomers, but she fails to pin the basic anthropological issue.  The large part of the Aboriginals were hunter-gatherers, while the newcomers were agricultural and urban.  They came with a concept of land ownership, largely absent from the hunter-gatherers.  For the latter, the land was just there, to be traversed during the hunt.

Aboriginals were also engaged in wars and thievery, in military struggles of nation against nation.  Not totally unlike European history.  They largely saw the French and English nations as others like unto theirs.  They formed alliances with the newcomers in their local wars, some with the English and some with the French.  Some more farseeing ones, like Tecumseh, saw the danger to Aboriginal independent governance from the growing settler presence, and he travelled up and down the East coast trying with limited success to rally Aboriginals to the British side in what became the War of 1812, arguing that the Americans were intent on western expansion.  He died in battle in that war, and afterwards both the Americans and the British (later Canadians) continued westward to the Pacific.

Monchalin attempts an outline of Aboriginal history, with particular reference to relations with the newcomers, carefully noting the indigenous bona fides of each person cited.  It is surprising then that she makes no mention of Olive Dickason, the Métise historian who pioneered in producing her texts on the history of the Aboriginal peoples, the more so as Dickason was a distinguished fellow alumna of the University of Ottawa.

Where her undertaking bears more fruit is with reference to settler violation of treaties/agreements.  Here the record is unambiguous.  Indeed, as Hollywood has observed, “White man speak with forked tongue.”  If he were Aboriginal, she might have footnoted J.R. Miller’s Compact, Contract, Covenant (University of Toronto Press, 2009). 

To her credit, she calls attention to the fact that playing fast and free with treaties is occurring even now, and even with new treaties.  For example, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement required Quebec to give priority in hiring on the development work to Cree and Inuit, as well as in tourist employment.  “Only 10 years after signing the treaty, Cree people presented the government with a list of 65 broken promises.”  And in British Columbia, First Nations are pushed into taking out substantial loans to cover negotiation expenses on land claims.  The longer negotiations drag on, the greater repayment.  The First Nations are pushed into abandoning things that would have best remained on the table for fear of losing much else when it comes time to pay the bill.

Monchalin argues that taking land claims to Canadian courts or in processes developed by the Canadian government is in itself a kind of surrender of sovereignty by First Nations that engage in these.  She offers no alternative. 

Finally, she comes to crime writ small.  She differentiates the perception of crime from a Canadian and a typical Aboriginal perspective.  She sagely notes that the identification of restorative justice with Aboriginal justice may be overdone.  Aboriginal societies have pursued other approaches, even capital punishment.  Nevertheless, restorative justice approaches, such as sentencing circles, hold considerable promise.  It is here that we come to the “too little.”  She is a newly-minted Ph.D. criminologist who deigns to produce a textbook for university students. Yet her discussion of ways of dealing with Aboriginal offenders and with Aboriginal gangs is extremely limited.  Prevention gets but a few pages. 

She ends the book with a few pages on healing circles and some cases of Aboriginal individuals who persevered.  Good for them, but. . . .

All in all, this book is a disappointment.  Neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat.

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