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Monday, May 14, 2018

Evans, "Heart of Ice: Indigenous Defendants and Colonial Law in the Canadian North-West"


In 1885, in the midst of the North-West Resistance in which Indigenous people took up arms against the colonial Canadian state, three Cree men executed an elderly Cree woman. At their trial for murder, the defendants were found guilty. They avoided execution because colonial authorities became convinced that they believed that their victim was a wendigo, a cannibal spirit. Killing a wendigo was justified under Cree law and so, argued one judge, the defendants lacked the mens rea necessary to sustain a murder conviction. The history of this case shows the limits of colonial legal jurisdiction and sovereignty. Scarce resources, hostile territory and Indigenous resistance hampered the colonial state's efforts to consolidate its legal control over the Canadian frontier. This essay notes the importance of these forces, but also argues that common law jurisprudence itself could impair the ability of the state to hold Indigenous defendants criminally responsible. Colonial officials regularly invoked the idea that Indigenous people adhered to different legal and normative orders in order to illustrate their supposed inferiority. However, this official recognition of the legal pluralism of the North-West could undermine a defendant's responsibility and cut against efforts to assert the exclusive jurisdiction of Canadian criminal law.

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