It is easy, Constance Backhouse acknowledges, to look back on Canada's first half century and make excuses for the racism routinely demonstrated by the white ruling class. That's how things were in those days, people might say. Or, you have to understand racism in the context of the times.

This, however, is not a viewpoint that Backhouse, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, shares.

Her years of research in the legal archives have convinced her that "there was as much resistance to racism back then as there was racism. There were lawyers and judges who disagreed [with the laws]."

She cites, for example, the 1930 case involving a gang of 70 men who marched through Oakville, Ont. in white robes and burned a cross on the lawn of a man, thought to be black, who was planning to marry a young white woman. The woman was abducted and driven to a local Salvation Army office. The chief of police pronounced himself satisfied that no violence or property destruction had occurred.

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In the newspapers, almost everyone said it was a very impressive show of white justice. Everyone agreed with the goals, though some were a little leery about the methods.

"But in Toronto," Backhouse noted in a recent interview, "the black community lobbied and organized and met and did everything it could to insist that the authorities prosecute the marchers. There were active and courageous efforts by some whites to stop racism, and these efforts put the prevailing racism in a different perspective. There is evidence of really bold resistance, which is extremely inspiring. People had choices."

Born and raised in south Winnipeg, Backhouse's interest in the racism entrenched in law was a natural outgrowth of earlier work exploring laws affecting women. A previous book, Petticoats and Prejudice, profiled interesting trials and historic cases involving feminist heroines. But as the feminist movement has grown, the lines of academic inquiry have broadened to include women of colour and issues of race. "But, obviously, I couldn't do a book about racial laws that only affected women."

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