Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1961

by Barrington Walker, Professor of History, Queen’s University. Published with the University of Toronto Press, 2010.

In recent years legal historians have been increasingly interested in the social history of the law and in the law’s impact on, among many other social phenomena, race relations. This ground-breaking study investigates the relationship between Ontario’s black community and the criminal courts from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. Using a sample comprised of capital case files and the assize records for Kent and Essex counties, counties with relatively large black populations because they were termini of the underground railroad, Professor Walker investigates the ‘limits of freedom’ for Ontario’s African Canadians. He contrasts formal legal equality with pervasive patterns of social, economic and attitudinal inequality. The records allow him not only to analyse attitudes of the dominant community, but also to provide rare glimpses into black life in the Canadian past

Reviews of Race on Trial: Black Defendants in Ontario’s Criminal Courts, 1858-1961

Barrington Walker ... presents fascinating and disturbing evidence of the 'state of paradox' in which Blacks lived in Canada.... Walker uses criminal case files to explore the experiences of poor, marginalized blacks..... [T]his book makes important contributions to our understandings of race and the law, illustrating the ongoing power of the tension between the veneer of the rule of law and biologically and culturally rooted ideas about race in Canada. Lori Chambers, Acadiensis, Vol 41, 2012, pp. 251-252
Walker questions whether, in some ways, history might be inadvertently repeating itself in courtrooms today, when there are calls for an offender’s cultural background to be taken into account when it comes to sentencing.” Tracey Tyler, “Equal but at times subhuman’: How Ontario’s justice system has treated blacks. Toronto Star, January 30, 2011.

Reviews have also appeared in the following publications:

  • Carla Marano, Canadian Historical Review, Vol 93, 2012, p. 330.
  • Dan Ernst, Legal History Blog, 30 October 2010