On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871


287 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8336-6
DDC 971.1'02





Reviewed by David W. Leonard

David W. Leonard is the project historian (Northern Alberta) in the
Historic Sites and Archives Service, Alberta Community Development. He
is the author of Delayed Frontier: The Peace River Country to 1909 and
coauthor of The Lure of the Peace River Count


In this study, the author contends that “both race and gender are not
inevitable and fixed categories, but rather historically constructed
ones that are not created through biology as much as they are normalized
through biological discourses.” The setting is the colony of British
Columbia in the period 1849–71. With a preponderance of Aboriginals, a
racial mix of male migrants, and a scarcity of white females, attitudes
on race and gender found ample expression. Of course, the multifarious
and largely disconnected society was “homosocial,” as impelled by
crude miners, free-spirited adventurers, or various reformers bent on
inculcating Victorian morals and manners.

On the Edge of Empire is strong on theory and short on historical
narrative. Indeed, the main drawback is the brevity of the setting. The
development of British Columbia, the nature of its politics and
government, and the background of the people who came there (or were
there) are only briefly discussed. The dominant personality, Governor
James Douglas, is referred to in places, but his policies are not
explained. Nor are we always sure of what geographical setting we are
in. The borders of British Columbia in 1871 were the same as today, but
white settlement (the focus of the book) penetrated to only a few
locations on Vancouver Island and along the rivers of the lower mainland
and interior. Thus, although Aboriginals were the predominant ethnic
group, only a few were in direct contact with whites on a regular basis.

This study is, however, a thorough one, using most of the primary
sources available. It is based on a dissertation, and, unfortunately for
the general reader, it reads like one. There is an overuse of
“according to” and “as ... points out,” with as many views on
race and gender in history worked in as possible. The author purports to
draw on four theoretical schools: “the large body of feminist
literature that explores gender as the social organization of manliness
and womanliness”; the Marxist contention “that historical change is
material in character and that class relations are central to social
relations”; from postcolonial literature “the fundamental insight
that imperialism and race are crucial to social experience”; and
“post-structuralist insights around the necessary discursive character
of all sources and ... the historically constructive character of social

The text is supplemented by 47 pages of endnotes, archival photos,
posters, and drawings. Perry is an assistant professor of history at St.
Paul’s College, Manitoba.


Perry, Adele., “On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/30479.