Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921 (review) [Allan Cho]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Canada, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation on 2012-11-12 21:54Z by Steven

Colonial Proximities: Crossracial Encounters and Juridical Truths in British Columbia, 1871–1921 (review) [Allan Cho]

University of Toronto Quarterly
Volume 81, Number 3, Summer 2012
pages 690-691
DOI: 10.1353/utq.2012.0090

Allan Cho, Program Services Librarian
University of British Columbia

As part of a new collective at the University of British Columbia re-envisaging the landscape and boundaries of early Canada, Renisa Mawani’s Colonial Proximities exemplifies a new wave of scholarship on ‘Pacific Canada.’ Focusing on how migrants from Asia, Europe, and other parts of the Americas interacted with each other and with First Nations peoples historically, the important work of these scholars examines the parallels beyond the histories of French-English Canada and to larger histories in North America.

Situated in this intellectual context, Mawani argues that these early interracial encounters between aboriginal peoples, Chinese migrants, and other “racial enemies” provoked such deep concerns among colonial authorities that a production of a number of ‘juridical racial truths’ were needed to pave the way for modes of governance that eventually pervaded for the remaining century. As a contact zone saturated by interraciality, the colonial administrators sought a delicate balance of moral assimilation for its aboriginal populace and physical segregation of its Chinese settlers. Not only did fear of racial encounters promulgate accusations of either coerced or deliberate prostitution ever threatening to colonial morals, heterosexuality ultimately became a contested field among the colonial authorities that sought to regulate the social mores of its inhabitants.

Unfurling a bio-political conundrum, this settler colonialism produced a paradoxical blend of assimilation and segregation intersecting at one of the colony’s main economic engines, the salmon cannery industry. Could the economic fortunes that required an abundant supply of cheap labour from Chinese and aboriginal workers in the canneries justify the possibilities of this ‘contagion’ that would result from intimate contact between these races? Could the desire for racial purity within a racially mixed labour force even be possible?

Whereas aboriginal women were seen as an internal danger to the colony, Chinese women were racial enemies who threatened the racial balance of its white populace. Liquor provisions further worked to augment racial divisions and fortify existing power structures dominated by European colonialists. The illegal liquor trade served to underpin the hostility that exacerbated the accusation of Chinese selling liquor to aboriginals, which required an ‘interracial prevention.’ Matters became complicated, however, when mixed peoples, the ‘half breeds,’ challenged and defied colonial taxonomies, as colonial authorities could no longer easily pinpoint those that it needed to control.

Not surprisingly, these interracial exchanges among aboriginal peoples, European colonists, Chinese migrants, and mixed-race populations engendered racial anxieties that sustained colonial institutions run by the Indian agents, missionaries, and legal authorities who sought manifold ways to monitor these encounters through friendships, alliances, and even sexual relations. This legislation of race emerged as a common voice among the largely white administration. Lively debates and discussions eventually led to the creation of royal commissions, further solidifying colonial procedures and legislation that would systematically demarcate racial lines.

Colonial Proximities is an evolution of Mawani’s doctoral dissertation, showing a maturation of ideas. This fresh and more fluid understanding of early Canada is one that seeks to examine the role of trans-Pacific migration in multiple directions throughout the Pacific region, highlighting the history of racism and exploitation of migrants and displacement of First Nations people…

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