On the Fragmentation of Canadian Criminal Justice History

By Smandych, Russell; Hogeveen, Bryan | Canadian Journal of Criminology, April 1999 | Go to article overview

On the Fragmentation of Canadian Criminal Justice History


Smandych, Russell, Hogeveen, Bryan, Canadian Journal of Criminology


Although writing on the history of criminal justice institutions in Canada dates back to the early part of the 20th century (Smandych, Matthews, and Cox 1987), it was not until the late -- 1970's that legal historians and criminologists began to carve out a field of study that can loosely be referred to as Canadian criminal justice history (Bercuson and Knafla 1979; Knafla 1981). Since then several attempts have been made to review the state of writing in the field and offer prescriptions for future research (Knafla 1979; Woods 1983; Macleod 1988; Phillips 1991; 1996). A common theme of these reviews has been that the field of Canadian criminal justice history remains highly fragmented and conspicuously underdeveloped. The purpose of the following report is to summarize some of the assessments that have been offered to date about the state of Canadian criminal justice history, and point out some of the progress that is being made by researchers working in the area. In the course of doing this, we also attempt to account for why the field of Canadian criminal justice history appears so fragmented, and why perhaps it has not yet been accepted into the mainstream of Canadian historiography.

It is important to reexamine some of the views offered by academics who have led in the development of the field over the past 20 years. In 1979, Louis Knafla pointed out, somewhat embarrassed, that so little work had been done that it would be misleading to say that a field of Canadian criminal justice history even existed. Unlike in England and the United States, where a more methodologically and theoretically sophisticated research literature began to appear in the 1970's, Canadian criminal justice history was still in its infancy. As such, Knafil (1979: 159-160) proposed that in any attempt made to take stock of the field, "the net must be drawn large to catch all that may be relevant ... to the [historical] study of crime, criminal law and justice in Canada." Calling on historians to take up the challenge, Knafla (1979:158) remarked that "(o)nly when Canadian scholars gain the interest, expertise and guts to work in the basements of archives and court houses to examine that great mass of parchment left by the hands of dogged court reporters and judges will we ever acquire any hard evidence on crime and the working of the criminal law." Writing in the introduction to the first edited book on the history of criminal justice in Canada, R.C. Macleod (1988: 3-4) noted, like Knafla, that "historical writing on the subject is recent and fragmented", while "the scope for new and exciting research" in the area was "almost without limit."

Jim Phillips (1991: 65) also echos this sentiment in his detailed overview of literature on the history of Canadian criminal justice from 1750-1920. According to Phillips' (1991: 65) assessment, "Canadian criminal justice history [still] remains one of the most underdeveloped areas of Canadian history, and is also very much the poor relation in the burgeoning international family of studies in the history of crime and punishment." In addition to being "scattered throughout a disparate article literature" across the disciplines of history, law, political science and criminology, Phillips (1991: 66) expressed concern over the fact that studies were often theoreticallyderivative, adopting "wholesale and uncritically interpretive frameworks initially formulated for explaining English and American developments." More recently, Phillips (1996: 164), in a somewhat more positive vein, points out that, while it is easy to lament about "the inadequacies of Canadian criminal justice history", it is also important to acknowledge the progress that is being made by its current practitioners, many of whom are still relatively early in their careers and in the midst of undertaking significant research. Jamie Benidickson (1997) offers a similar positive assessment of the contribution that "legal historians" -- broadly defined to include researchers from a variety of disciplines -- are now making to the study of criminal law, punishment and corrections. …

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