Barry Wright’s research presentation takes a retrospective look at political trials in the context of the Canadian State Trials project which comes to a conclusion with the forthcoming fifth volume of the series. The previously published volumes examine political trials and security measures during the British colonial period, the early Dominion of Canada, and the First World War to 1939. The final volume of the series will include security measures and proceedings during World War Two, the Cold War, and in response to Quebec separatism from the 1960’s to 1980’s.

The paper begins with a sweeping general overview of the record of Canada’s experiences with political trials as examined in these volumes and turns to a focus on two examples drawn from Quebec, the trial of David McLane, 1797, and a decade-long series of trials of Front de Libèration du Québec (FLQ or felquistes) defendants starting in 1963. The first is a classic state trial for treason, the FLQ trials reflect key features of the modern political trial.

The paper closes with observations about the value of comparative work beyond the temporal gulf of the late 18th and 20th centuries. Political trials and national security measures tend to be assessed in a rather parochial way, as part of local narratives about political development, liberation struggles or the struggle for the rule of law and civil liberties. Such proceedings in 19th century Canada and Australia took place within larger networks of the British Empire through which legal and political personnel and policies circulated under London’s supervision. Once they emerged as self-governing dominions, both jurisdictions operated with similar constitutional systems and residual British influence over international relations and security. Appreciation of context and global complexities does not imply the displacement of history from ‘below’ by whiggish history from ‘above.’ Moreover, comparison helps to inform sound historical interpretation and assessment and provides a fuller understanding our particular experiences of self-determination, the rule of law, civil liberties and rights.


Barry Wright is Professor of Law, Criminology and History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada and former Director of Arthur Kroeger College and Associate Dean, Faculty of Public Affairs at Carleton. His research and publications are in the areas of criminal law administration and reform in 19th century British colonial settings and political trials and national security measures in Canadian history.

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