Reviewed by Michele Landsberg. Like snow blandly smoothing out the landscape, a blanket of whiteness seems to obliterate history. That’s precisely the point made by feminist legal scholar Connie Backhouse in her recently published book Colour-Coded, A Legal History of Racism in Canada 1900-1950.

Despite a long past of bigoted attitudes, acts and laws–segregated schools didn’t end in Ontario until 1965 –all mention of race is normally "whited out" of the legal records and history books. Backhouse quotes poet Dionne Brand, who once expressed astonishment at Canadians’ "stupefying innocence."

In the U.S., Brand said, "Backhouse’s lively new history is at pains to point out that racism is not primarily about "isolated acts individuals". Instead, it resonates through institutions like the legal system, through popular culture, through intellectual theory so accepted it seems immutable. 

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In 1930, when the white-hooded Ku Klux Klan rampaged through Oakville to burn a giant cross and break into a house to separate a man from his fiance, they were praised by the media and complimented by the police chief. The Toronto Star praised the "show of white justice" and the way the Klan had "escorted" the young woman "courteously and quietly" –though it backed down a bit later when it revealed the man was of Indian ancestry.

The Globe, The Hamilton Spectator and The London Free Press all echoed the tone of approval. Only the local black leaders, Reform rabbi Maurice Eisendrath and William Templeton, white editor of the Guelph Mercury, crusaded passionately against the Klan's racism. When the Klan leaders were feebly charged with "wearing a disguise by night", only one of them was convicted and lightly punished.

Backhouse's book is packed with prickly revelations. When, in 1924, a Chinese cafe-owner in Regina challenged a law forbidding him to hire white women, much of Canada's liberal and progressive leadership seems to have gone mad with sexual frenzy.

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