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Entryways to Criminal Justice: Accusation and Criminalization in Canada

By George Pavlich & Matthew P. Unger (Eds.)
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press (UAP). 2019. pp. 205.

The edited collection Entryways to Criminal Justice: Accusation and Criminalization in Canada by George Pavlich, Canada Research Chair in Social Theory, Culture and Law, and Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Alberta and Matthew P. Unger, Assistant Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University explores accusation as a process that creates entryways into the Canadian criminal justice system. Accusation is a process shaped by historical, social, political, and economic forces initiated by the “oft-neglected doorkeepers authorized to institute entryways into fluid criminal justice arenas….[by] emphasizing the doorkeepers who figuratively open or close doors to criminalizing processes” (Pavlich & Unger, 2019: x-xi).

The eight chapters of this book serve to fill a gap in empirical knowledge about a crucial stage in criminal justice processes: accusation. Specifically, the collection explores who has the authority to accuse someone of a crime, who is at the receiving end of the accusatorial gaze and how accusation can lead to criminalization, serving as the single thread holding the collection together. Chapter one attempts to establish the conceptual framework of the book. Chapters two and three examine pre-formal law, colonial practices of accusation. Chapter two also examines the accusatorial processes. The chapter follows the murder of Thomas Poole and his two children in 1879, particularly those who possess the authority to make a legitimized accusation. Chapter three is set in the winter of 1825-1826, during the Red River famine in Manitoba. Fort Garry HBC clerk Francis Heron used morality to determine which residents were considered “social enemies” of the Fort for their failure to “provide sustenance,” which led to the deaths of several residents.  Chapters four to eight explore contemporary contexts of accusation and criminalization. Chapter four establishes how epidemiological information—blood—serves as an accuser in cases of HIV-no disclosure transmission, leading to the criminalization of people with HIV/AIDS. The focus of chapter five is the performativity of accusation in determining what constitutes a prizefight and how prizefights are then criminalized. “Prolific offenders” and how they exist in a “perpetual state of accusation” mitigated by risk assessment practices that predict the potential to offend is the purview of chapter six. Chapter seven discusses the criminalization of genocide and the development of the “lore of accusation” related to Canada’s attempted abrogation of their role in the historical erasure of Indigenous peoples, practices, language, laws, etc. Finally, chapter eight analyzes women’s demeanour — appearance, vocabulary, clothing — when making accusations of domestic violence. Demeanour, in this case, is an interaction between the accuser and the police predicated on an expectation of how each will perform and determines if accusation serves as an entryway into criminal justice.

The breadth of time, spaces, places, actors and contexts of accusation and criminalization serve to establish the fluidity of the Canadian criminal justice system and reiterate the importance of historical, social, political and economic factors shape how the criminal justice system operates. At the same time, this breadth also serves as a flaw. Despite Pavlich’s attempt to construct a conceptual framework in the first chapter, the book suffers from a lack of cohesion. Each chapter explores accusations and criminalization but to varying degrees and extents. This means that the individual chapters can serve as stand-alone examples of accusations and criminalization, which is counter to the purpose of an edited collection. What is missing in this book is an effort by the editors to establish how the recurring themes of accusation and criminalization connect throughout the chapters. Given the social, political, economic, historical frameworks covered in this edited collection, the onus is on the editors to include a concluding chapter that connects how the diverse and varied chapters come together as a collection of chapters examining accusation and criminalization.

Another clue toward the lack of cohesion in the collection is the critical question guiding the collection: What implicit social discourses and long-standing structures undergird the putative rationality of law; in short, what “lore of accusation” governs entryways into Canada’s changing criminal justice system? Such an unfocused question is an invitation to the broad mandate of the book, leaving the reader to question the common focus among the chapters again.

The book itself is not consistently accessible, as the diverse writing styles across the chapters are inconsistent. Some of the chapters are more accessible than others. This book is perhaps best suited to graduate students and academics in multiple disciplines interested in the criminal justice system’s multi-faceted processes.


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