The appointment last October of Adrienne Clarkson as Governor General confirmed Canada's international reputation as a tolerant, multicultural society. The fact, however, that when emigrating from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in 1942, Clarkson and her family had at first been turned away on the grounds that they were Chinese, also serves as a reminder that Canada's own past is not entirely free of the racialist blemishes that disfigure the history of most Western nations. (Racialism is the procedure according to which racist attitudes, apparently verified by scientific knowledge, are adopted by the state as the basis for institutional and legal processes, the most extreme examples in modern times being apartheid and Nazi Germany.)

In Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950, University of Western Ontario law professor Constance Backhouse has sifted through 20th-century Canadian legal history to provide a fascinating demonstration of the ways in which racialist ideas permeated the country's legal institutions.

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Backhouse shows how racialist value systems influenced the judgments of magistrates and judges, who were themselves always white, across a wide range of cases involving First Nations people and immigrants. Native Canadians were denied sovereignty claims and, under the Indian Act of 1884, refused the right to pursue such cultural practices as Aboriginal dance.

Backhouse also charts the labyrinthine difficulties in which legislators found themselves from 1850 onward as they tried to define "Indian." Despite the resources of the whole biologistic panoply of contemporary racial science, in the end they resorted to the argument that anyone who was reputed to be an Indian was an Indian. This, however, did not get them out of further questions, such as whether other groups, particularly the Inuit, were Indians or not (in 1939 the Supreme Court of Canada confidently proclaimed that they were). Among Backhouse's other cases are:

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