Thursday, March 09, 2023

Book Notes: Phillips, Girard, Brown, History of Law in Canada II

By being a member of the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, you help support the publication of legal history in Canada (and other activities) and in exchange you receive "the annual book," one from the three or four the society produces in a typical year.

Last November I attended the Society's annual gathering and the launch of the History of Law in Canada Volume II by Jim Phillips, Philip Girard, and Blake Brown. But recently I realized my copy was not just delayed in the mail. It evidently was not coming at all. So I inquired. Turns out I neglected to renew my membership last year, so I wasn't entitled. I had to pony up forty bucks to get one.

At the launch (at which I guess I was technically a gatecrasher), I was thanked as one of the anonymous pre-publication reviewers. The authors had managed to guess who we were, and both Douglas Harris and I had agreed to be outed. So after all the work involved in reviewing a book so authoritative about everything in its vast field of study, I feel I did a lot for a book I ended up having to buy. (On the other hand, I saved on the membership dues.)

Nevertheless. I now have got a copy of Volume II, and I am very happy to have it. In their printed acknowledgments, the authors thank the (then still-anonymous) reviewers for "just what authors want -- half a page of generous and enthusiastic praise and many further pages of corrections and perceptive suggestions." Reading it now in handsome hardcover rather than messy pages, I want to deliver some more of that enthusiastic praise. This is a very good book. And important far beyond the cloisters of legal history. 

Volume II covers the years 1867-1914, and an important theme is how much the founding of the Canadian state involved the imposing of Canadian law (or the making of new law and institutions) to replace previous ones throughout the "dominion." These innovations mostly remain in being, and no political historian and no general historian of Canada should be unaware of this history of law as state-making. The fifty-page summary of the constitutional history in Chapter Two is a remarkably clear, vivid, and thought-provoking overview. This and the succeeding chapters, which give the legal framework of practically any question you can imagine asking about Canadian history in that period, ought to make the volume an indispensable reference.

Volume II is also groundbreaking among survey histories and reference works for how completely it has integrated indigenous history and law into the narrative, not as some woke acknowledgment but as fundamental grounding. In a hundred and fifty pages, Part Two, "Indigenous Peoples and the New Dominion" focusses a legal lens on treaty-making, the prairie resistance, the Indian Act, the reserve system, the criminalization of culture, education and assimilation, and a host of conflicts between enduring indigenous law and the new system.

And much more.  There are many short summaries that will tell any historian what they need to know on, say, the legal background of corporate power, of labour rights, of property law, of family law, of civil rights....

Philips, Girard, and Brown have another big volume in the works to complete this history. And since the 800 pages of Volume II appear just four years after the 900 pages of Volume I, it probably won't be too long a wait for III. But II may prove to be the essential, and ground-breaking, one of the three, the one you keep on your short, close-at-hand shelf. Somebody should give this book a prize.   

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