Over the past few weeks, I’ve been rereading The African Canadian Legal Odyssey: Historical Essays, edited by Barrington Walker.

Two of the essays resonate strongly with me; they link both to Black History Month and to my ongoing interest in the history of capital punishment in Canada.

Both essays illustrate the conflicted attitude toward Black people within the Canadian criminal justice system during the 20th century.

In “Creating the Myth of ‘Raceless’ Justice in the Murder Trial of R. v. Richardson, Sandwich, 1903,” Susan McKelvey, now a doctor of law and practicing lawyer, analyzes the case of Oliver Richardson, accused of murdering his neighbour and fellow-farmer Edmund Matthews in Essex County, Ontario.

Historically, notes McKelvey, we Canadians have prided ourselves for embracing the idea of “British justice,” which distinguishes our country from the more overtly racist Americans. Slavery officially ended in Canada in 1833, and Canadians abhorred vigilante justice as practiced by our southern neighbours. However, “stereotypes deeply entrenched within society depicted Black people as innately inferior to whites.” Discrimination and inequality spilled over into the criminal justice system, too.

The murder of Edmund Matthews was the culmination of a long-standing family feud, but McKelvey points out that the real significance here is that for the first time in Ontario a white man stood trial for killing a Black man.

Black people had started settling in Essex County in the early 1800s and by 1903 there was a sizeable population in the area. Generally, relations between whites and Blacks were positive, and the Matthews family was particularly well regarded by the white community. Not by Oliver Richardson, though, who claimed that Edmund Matthews had cheated him out of a strip of land, part of a parcel he had bought from a third party. Richardson, regarded as a ne’er-do-well, was constantly fighting with people in the area; Matthews’s only arguments were with his quarrelsome and litigious neighbour.

Things came to a head on July 10, 1903, when a mare and a colt escaped from the Matthews’ enclosure and the colt strayed onto Richardson’s property. Matthews did not retrieve the animal quickly enough; Richardson stormed onto his farm, and, in full view of both their families, pulled out his revolver and shot Matthews four times. Mattthews died the following day. Richardson faced a murder charge for “shooting and wounding with intent to kill.” And a murder conviction, it must be remembered, carried with it the sentence of death by hanging.

Richardson’s trial took place in September 1903. In his opening address, the presiding judge, as reported in the Amherstburg Echo, was “proud to say we are on Canadian soil where the life of the colored [sic] man is as much revered … as that of any other of our subjects.” The Crown attorney concurred. “Our colored citizens must get justice, and I am pleased to say that there are no burnings at the stake in our Dominion as in countries not far away.” As McKelvey dryly comments, “in a supposedly raceless system, there was nevertheless much emphasis placed on the race of the victim.”

Did this underlying racism play out in the eventual decision in the case? When it came to the witnesses, it became a case of “he said, she said,” or, more correctly, “they said, they said.” The Matthews family claimed that Richardson was the aggressor; the Richardson family, in spite of contradicting themselves and being “badly rattled” under cross-examination, insisted that Richardson had only opened fire after Matthews started throwing stones at him. Richardson’s lawyer insinuated that his client was forced to defend himself with a weapon because Matthews, as a Black man, was possessed of much greater strength. This in spite of the fact that Richardson, “a big burly fellow,” was some fifteen years younger than his killer. The Crown attorney reminded the court that Richardson was trespassing when he shot Matthews. And why was he carrying around a deadly weapon, unless he meant to use it?

After deliberating for an hour, the jury came back with a verdict of manslaughter, and the judge immediately sentenced Richardson to fifteen years in the Kingston Penitentiary. Whites in the community were satisfied with the result; Blacks expressed their disappointment in no uncertain terms. If Matthews had been white, they said, the verdict would have been murder.

McKelvey’s conclusion: “In one sense it seems fairly evident that a genuine effort was made to achieve justice for Edmund Matthews. But while those who were prosecuting Oliver Richardson believed that they were demonstrating the ‘racelessness’ of the Canadian justice system, a more careful contextual analysis reveals that the trial merely hid the more deeply entrenched racism and prejudices within society.”

Next week, in Part 2 of this mini-series, I’ll take a look at David Steeves’s analysis of the case of Daniel Perry Sampson, a Black man executed in 1935 for the murder of two young white brothers in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a postscript to this case, Sampson received an unexpected mark of respect in December 2017.