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Jurisdiction and Settler Colonialism: Where Do Laws Meet?

  • Shiri Pasternak (a1)


To engage in the question of what it means to decolonize law, we must ask by what authority a law has the authority to be invoked and to govern. In this paper, I describe the conditions necessary for the exercise of Canadian law as being the work of jurisdiction, and I call into question Canada’s legality and legitimacy in making jurisdictional claims. Decolonizing law means deconstructing the state’s grounds to inaugurate law on lands acquired through colonial settlement. By critically examining law’s geography and scope I call into question the modern definition of territory itself. Further, I draw attention to jurisdiction as a conceptual framework for understanding the specificities of settler colonialism; illustrate jurisdiction as a historical concept, distinct from territory and sovereignty; and show some of the ways in which jurisdiction is enacted to govern across multiple scales and issues.

Si l’on se penche sur la question de ce que signifie la décolonisation du droit, on doit se questionner sur l’autorité d’une loi d’être invoquée et de gouverner. Dans cet article, je décris comment le travail des juridictions amorce l’exercice du pouvoir législatif au Canada, et je remets en cause la légalité et la légitimité du Canada à l’égard des revendications juridictionnelles. L’acte de décoloniser le droit signifie que l’on doit déconstruire les motifs de l’État afin d’introduire des lois sur les terres acquises par le peuplement colonial. En examinant de manière critique la géographie ainsi que la portée de la juridiction, je remets en cause la définition moderne du « territoire ». Dans cet article, j’attire l’attention sur comment la juridiction représente un cadre conceptuel permettant de comprendre les spécificités du colonialisme de peuplement ; d’illustrer la juridiction en tant que concept historique distinct du territoire ou de la souveraineté ; et de démontrer certaines formes à travers lesquelles la juridiction est adoptée pour gouverner les diverses échelles et pour régir les diverses questions.

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1 Richardson, Boyce, Blockade: Algonquins Defend the Forest (Ottawa: National Film Board of Canada, 1990).

2 Veracini, Lorenzo, Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 115.

3 Wolfe, Patrick, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (London, New York: Cassell, 1999), 163.

4 Blomley, Nicholas and Bakan, Joel, “Spacing Out: Towards a Critical Geography of Law,” Osgoode Hall L.J. 661 (1992): 662.

5 McNeil, Kent, “Indigenous Land Rights and Self-Government: Inseparable Entitlements,” in Between Indigenous and Settler Governance, eds. Ford, Lisa and Rowse, Tim (New York: Routledge, 2013), 145–46.

6 Dorsett, Shaunnagh and McVeigh, Shaun, “Questions of Jurisdiction,” in Jurisprudence of Jurisdiction, ed. McVeigh, Shaun (Oxford: Routledge-Cavendish, 2007), 4.

7 Ibid., 4. However, as Jennifer Nedelsky has pointed out to me, while jurisdiction does not wholly precede law in all cases—for example, in cases where the province creates municipal authority and jurisdiction—the foundation for these latter forms of establishing jurisdiction are premised on the initial inauguration of jurisdiction in what is now called Canada, and which ushered in the reception of the common law in Canada.

8 Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 2.

9 Benton, A Search for Sovereignty, 21.

10 Santos, Boaventura de Sousa, “Law: A Map of Misreading. Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law,” Journal of Law and Society 14, no. 3 (1987): 279302, cited in Mariana Valverde, “Jurisdiction as Scale: Legal ‘Technicalities’ as Resources for Theory,” Social Legal Studies 18 (2009): 140.

11 I owe credit to Dr. Kim Stanton for this image.

12 This commentary on how a picture holds us captive is a paraphrase of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (New York: Macmillan Company, 1965), at 115.

13 Benton, A Search for Sovereignty, 32.

14 Farmer, Lindsay, “Territorial Jurisdiction and Criminalization,” University of Toronto Law Journal 63 (2013): 225–46.

15 I first encountered this idea in Lindsay Farmer’s article, “Territorial Jurisdiction and Criminalization,” ibid.

16 This idea of the “authority to have authority” comes from an insightful comment on this work by Dr. Deborah Cowen.

17 For a discussion of what he calls the “victorious modern language of constitutional uniformity,” see Tully, James, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 5898.

18 Ford, Lisa, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia 1788–1835 (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2010), 3.

19 Shaunnaugh Dorsett, “Thinking Jurisdictionally: A Genealogy of Native Title” (dissertation, University of New South Wales, 2005), 254.

20 Ibid.

21 I would argue that the same principle applies to civil law and other European legal traditions more broadly.

22 Dorsett, “Thinking Jurisdictionally,” 242–43.

23 Hinsley, F. H., Sovereignty (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 26, cited in Onuf, Nicholas, “Sovereignty: An Outline of a Critique,” Alternatives 16, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 430.

24 Shaw, Karena, Indigeneity and Political Theory: Sovereignty and the Limits of the Political (New York: Routledge, 2008), 3.

25 Onuf, “Sovereignty,” 430.

26 Ibid.

27 Fitzpatrick, Peter, “‘No Higher Duty’: Mabo and the Failure of Legal Foundation,” Law and Critique 13 (2002): 239.

28 Ibid., 247.

29 Ibid., 239.

30 There are, of course, competing genealogies of sovereignty. See, for example, Onuf, “Sovereignty,” 425–46.

31 Ford, Settler Sovereignty, 129.

32 Ibid., 56.

33 Shaunnagh Dorsett and Shaun McVeigh, Jurisdiction (New York: Routledge, 2012), 39.

34 Ibid., 4.

35 Dorsett and McVeigh, “Questions of Jurisdiction,” 5.

36 Arthur Manuel, “Who is Dependent on Whom?,” Defenders of the Land, December 5, 2011, accessed May 22, 2013,

37 Gottman, Jean, The Significance of Territory (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 123.

38 Valverde, “Jurisdiction as Scale,” 141.

39 Ibid..Here, Valverde is offering her interpretation of de Sousa Santos.

40 Valverde, “Jurisdiction as Scale,” 141.

41 Nicholas Blomley makes a similar point in “Law, Property, and the Spaces of Violence,” where he writes that liberalism tends to locate violence outside the law (“Law, Property, and the Spaces of Violence: The Frontier, the Survey, and the Grid,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 93, no. 1 (March 2003): 121–41.

42 Brenner, Neil, “A Thousand Leaves: Notes on the Geographies of Uneven Spatial Development,” The new political economy of scale, Keil, Roger and Mahon, Rianne, eds. (Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press, 2009), 38.

43 Ibid., 45.

44 The authoritative text on this matter is the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), which recommends that Aboriginal nations be seen and treated as a third order of government (Canada, Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, People to People, Nation to Nation: Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996), accessed online April 8, 2013,

45 Brenner, Neil and Elden, Stuart, “Henri Lefebvre on State, Space, Territory,” International Political Sociology 3 (2009): 358.

46 Ford, “Law’s Territory,” 853.

47 Ibid., 854.

48 Ibid. But Ford’s use of the term is restricted to its meanings within political liberalism. For example, his statement, “No particular set of rights and responsibilities naturally comes with residence in a given territory, and the boundaries of the territory itself are not natural,” excludes the criteria of Indigenous territorial jurisdiction from consideration (“Law’s Territory,” 900).

49 James Tully describes how “the so-called ‘Westphalian’ system is actually an imperial system of hegemonic and subaltern states constructed in the course of ‘interactions’ between imperial actors and imperialised collaborators and resisters. It is the foundation of contemporary imperialism, laid in the colonial period and strengthened during decolonisation. Informal imperialism would scarcely work at all if these colonial foundations did not provide a historically sedimented background structure of institutions and relations of domination within which the more flexible relations of informal imperialism are exercised in the foreground” (Public Philosophy in a New Key, vol. 2, Imperialism and Civic Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 140–41).

50 Culhane, Dara, The Pleasure of the Crown: Anthropology, Law and First Nations (Vancouver: Talon Books, 1998), 47.

51 Ibid., 48.

52 Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government [1689], ed. Laslett, Peter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960). See also Tully, James, An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); and, Emeric de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principle of the Law of Nature, book 1, Of Nations Considered in Themselves [1758], eds. Baola Kapossy and Richard Whatmore (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2008).

53 Royal Proclamation, 1763 (UK), reprinted RSC 1985, App II, No 1 [hereafter Royal Proclamation].

54 Walter Echo-Hawk, “Johnson v. M’Intosh & the Doctrine of Discovery in the United States: Impacts upon Federal Indian Law; and the Future of the Doctrine under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” (presentation, International Seminar on the Doctrine of Discovery, Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, BC, Secwepemcúl’ecw, September 20–21, 2012). Also, for a detailed discussion of the genealogy of the doctrine of discovery, see Miller, Robert J., Ruru, Jacinta, Behrendt, Larissa, and Lindberg, Tracey, Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 125.

55 Dickason, Olive P., Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1994), 180–81.

56 Borrows, John, “Constitutional Law from a First Nation Perspective: Self-Government and the Royal Proclamation,” University of British Columbia Law Rev 28 (1994): 27.

57 Seed, Patricia, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

58 Williams, Robert Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 237, cited in Culhane, Pleasure of the Crown, 56.

59 Miller et al., Discovering Indigenous Lands, 107.

60 Culhane argues that this exercise of preemption power is actually rooted in the doctrine of conquest and not in the doctrine of discovery (Pleasure of the Crown, 48). This seems logical, given that the king could hardly make assurances to Indian nations if the land was uninhabited. But in 1763, given the strong military alliances with Indigenous nations so desperately sought by the colonizers, the doctrine of conquest was hardly likely. However, the doctrine of discovery could accommodate the paradox of an inhabited land and the concept of terra nullius—vacant lands—so long as the British discovered a land of non-Christian strangers, whose forms of landholding did not conform to the cultivated enclosures of the British motherland.

61 Borrows, John, “Wampum at Niagara: The Royal Proclamation, Canadian Legal History, and Self-Government,” in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada: Essays on Law, Equality, and Respect for Difference (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).

62 Johnson v M’Intosh, 21 US (8 Wheat) 543 (1823) [hereafter Johnson]. Johnson is one of three cases decided by Chief Justice Marshall pertaining to federal Indian law in what is referred to as the “Marshall Trilogy.” The trilogy also includes Cherokee Nation v Georgia, 30 US (5 Peters) 1 (1831) and Worcester v Georgia, 31 US (6 Pet.) 515 (1832).

63 Miller et al., Discovering Indigenous Lands, 3.

64 Johnson. See also, Williams, Robert A. Jr., Like a Loaded Weapon: The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 51.

65 In Worcester v Georgia, 31 US (6 Pet) 515 (1832), Justice Marshall decides that the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government is a nation-to-nation political relationship and, as such, that the Cherokee Nation deserved self-governing rights.

66 St. Catherine’s Milling and Lumber Co. v The Queen (1888) 14 App Cas. 46 (JCPC).

67 Reid, Jennifer, “The Doctrine of Discovery and Canadian Law,” Canadian Journal of Native Studies 30, no. 2 (2010): 345.

68 Calder et al v Attorney-General of British Columbia [1973] SCR 313 ¶ 26 [hereafter Calder].

69 See, for example, White and Bob (1964), 50 DLR (2d) 613 (BCCA), aff’d (1965), 52 DLR (2d) 481 (SCC).

70 Calder at 26.

71 Justice Hall, citing Regina v White and Bob, [1964] BCJ No 212, 50 DLR (2d) 613, called the Royal Proclamation a “charter of Indian rights” (Ibid. at ¶ 138, Hall J, dissenting). As for Johnson v McIntosh, Justice Hall called the case “the locus classicus of the principles governing aboriginal title” (Ibid. at ¶ 121) (cited in Reid, “The Doctrine of Discovery” at 347).

72 Guerin v R, [1984] 2 SCR 335 [hereafter Guerin].

73 Guerin at 93.

74 Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1997] 3 SCR 1010 [hereafter Delgamuukw].

75 Tsilhqot’in Nation v British Columbia, 2007 BCSC 1700 [hereafter Tsilhqot’in].

76 Quoted in J. R. Miller, “Great White Father Knows Best: Oka and the Land Claims Process, Native Studies Review 7, no. 1 (1991): 38.

77 In Delgamuukw v British Columbia, [1997] 3 SCR 1010, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized Aboriginal title as the collective proprietary interests of Aboriginal peoples in their traditional territories.

R v Marshall; R v Bernard 2005 SCC 43 at first recognized, then reversed recognition of, Miq’mak treaty rights to pursue commercial fishing rights. Haida Nation v British Columbia (Minister of Forests), [2004] 3 SCR 511 set an important precedent around the “duty to consult and accommodate” First Nations on lands where Aboriginal title has been asserted though not necessarily recognized by the courts.

78 Asch, Michael and Zlotkin, Norman, “Affirming Aboriginal Title: A New Basis for Comprehensive Claims Negotiations,” in Aboriginal and Treaty Rights in Canada, ed. Asch, Michael (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997), 213.

79 Some notable exceptions in the field include Kent McNeil, Common Law Aboriginal Title (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) and Peter Rush, “An Altered Jurisdiction: Corporeal Traces of Law,” Griffith L Rev 6 (1997): 144–68.

80 Johnson, Harold, Two Families: Treaties and Government (Saskatoon, SK: Purich Publishing, 2007), 27.

81 Simpson, Leanne, “Anishnabe Nationhood,” Nation to Nation Now: The Conversations (symposium, Toronto, March 23, 2013).

82 Fore more on the key principles of modern sovereignty, see: Loughlin, Martin, “Ten Tenets of Sovereignty,” Sovereignty in Transition, Walker, Neil, ed. (Oxford; Portland Oregon: Hart Publishing, 2003).


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Jurisdiction and Settler Colonialism: Where Do Laws Meet?

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