Prof. George Pavlich’s new book looks at colonial law in 19th Century Alberta

Thresholds of Accusation highlights what today’s justice system can learn from the past

Doug Johnson - 18 March 2024

A University of Alberta professor’s latest publication offers a glimpse of criminal law’s past in Western Canada.

In Thresholds of Accusation: Law and Colonial Order in Canada, published by Cambridge University Press, Professor George Pavlich who is cross-appointed with the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Arts probes the history of pretrial accusations, focusing on Alberta between 1874 and 1884. 

“My book outlines the socio-political foundations of colonial criminalization in Alberta. Specifically, it examines Dominion performances of criminal accusation that translated local social lore into idioms of colonial law,” he says. 

During this period of Canadian history, the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) force — a small-scale precursor to today’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police — was established, partly in response to two intelligence officers’ reports. Both called for a civil authority with the paramilitary capacity to enforce law and order conducive to settler-colonial societies. 

The NWMP set about establishing local arenas where performances of accusation could render social conflicts into categories of colonial criminal law. The book describes these as ‘theatres of accusation’ where pre-trial rituals (arrests, receiving information of crimes, preliminary examinations) enabled police officers to judge certain acts as potentially criminal. 

Police officers and justices of the peace (often senior police officers) staged such theatres to designate which matters to bind over to criminal trials – thus serving as gatekeepers to colonial criminalization. Such accusatory performances not only aimed at declaring settler-colonial law’s jurisdiction, but at disaffirming existing Indigenous legalities. 

Thresholds of Accusation examines the socio-political effects of Dominion law and order, where criminal disorder was assumed to be caused by culpable individuals. Examining the power relations that drove Dominion theatres of accusation – sovereignty, discipline and biopolitics – Pavlich shows how the dispossessions of settler colonialism remained unrecognizable to, and so unheard by, its law.  

At the very start of colonial criminalization, theatres of accusation restricted how social conflict and marginalization might appear in criminal law. Only individuals could be held legally responsible for social disorders defined as criminal.   

Examining an overlooked facet of Canadian legal history, the author shows how past practices cultivated aspects of what we do today. Settler colonial legacies frequently lie behind notable repressions and marginalizations that plague current criminal justice systems – urging their recalibration. 

The book concludes by suggesting how Indigenous legalities might help to recast the very idea of accusation; such as, allowing its rituals to discern both social and individual ideas of responsibility for relational disruptions. Recasting accusation in this way pledges to reduce the spread of unequal individual marginalizations within current criminalization practices. Its wider promise is to approach social harm differently, and to forge congruent institutions of law.