There’s no simple solution to persistent feelings of racism and prejudice among white and aboriginal people in Rainy River District but education, ongoing communication, and changes to policy are keys that could lead to a better future, says McMaster University assistant professor Dr. Jeff Denis.
Dr. Denis, presented his Ph.D. dissertation, “Canadian Apartheid: Boundaries and Bridges in Aboriginal-White Relations,” to the public last Thursday night at the Métis Hall here.
The recent Harvard graduate’s study, completed in May and based on research he conducted in the district from 2007-09, found that racism and prejudice can and does co-exist in our community despite the fact that white and aboriginal people live and work together, and form friendships and marriages.
Dr. Denis’ goal was to assess the degree to which general theories of race relations, such as the contact hypothesis, improve our understanding of local group relations.
While he found a wide range of views among both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, Dr. Denis said the most interesting finding to him is that some non-aboriginal residents who have close aboriginal friends and family members continue to express certain forms of racism and prejudice.
“The question, then, is how is that possible? Why do some people maintain prejudiced views, or act in ways that reinforce systemic racism, despite close contact with the other group?” he wondered.
The “contact hypothesis” posits that intergroup contact breaks down stereotypes and prejudice. While this hypothesis has been supported by hundreds of studies, it also has been criticized for ignoring the collective and institutionalized basis for discrimination.
“My research does not refute the contact hypothesis, but rather extends and refines it by showing how, under certain conditions, contact can co-exist with prejudice,” Dr. Denis explained.
“Although contact may reduce old-fashioned prejudice or overt categorical hostility, that does not necessarily diminish the superior sense of group positioning that underlies laissez-faire racism and thereby maintain the status quo,” he noted.
Dr. Denis said “overt categorical hostility” is the notion that “Indians are bad” while “superior sense of group positioning” is a notion that, in this case white people, feel they are entitled to higher status and resources, and fear that another group is threatening their place.
As well, “laissez-faire racism” is not overt white supremacy but rather the tendency to blame aboriginal people for poverty and social problems, and resistance to creating meaningful policies to rectify historical and contemporary injustices.
In other words, it’s a set of ideas and practices that protects and defends the racial status quo.
“The problem is that contact alone does not alter the historically-rooted racial structure,” noted Dr. Denis. “So long as systemic racism persists, many Canadians will be motivated in part to maintain their power, resources, and status.”
He said there are some overall conclusions to be drawn from his study.
“At the end of the day, despite the local history of intermarriage and despite the many common interests of aboriginal and white residents, this is a case of conflicting ideological ‘frames’ or competing visions of the proper relationship between groups,” he remarked, adding conflict is not directly about blood or the colour of one’s skin but does have racial implications because of the historically-rooted racial structure.
Dr. Denis stressed there is “no simple fix, no magic solution” to the persisting racism.
“We need to take a holistic, multi-pronged, long-term approach,” he argued. “Despite my critiques of the contact hypothesis, contact does play a role in breaking down the most overt forms of prejudice.
“We do need to foster contact situations that promote empathy and perspective-taking, whether it’s integrated sports programs, cultural exchange programs. . . .
“But we can’t stop there. We also need better historical education,” added Dr. Denis. “We . . . know from surveys by other researchers, as well as my own research, that Canadians are fairly ignorant about the basic facts of treaty relations and residential schools, although in this district, there is probably more awareness than [in] many parts of Canada.
“Although I also know from my research that individuals that have changed their views on aboriginal issues over time have done so in part through historical education,” said Dr. Denis, adding he interviewed a young man of mixed descent who had conservative views, and perhaps internalized racism, but then contacted Dr. Denis a year later and changed his opinions from the initial interview “by learning the things they don’t teach you in school.”
“Based on such stories, I believe that better historical education integrated into the school curriculum from an early age would go a long way to overcoming this laissez-faire racism,” he reiterated.
His research also highlighted the problem of “willful ignorance,” adding one of the most disturbing comments he heard in his field work was when a 35-year-old white man with a university degree told him, “I already know what I believe and I don’t want to learn anything new.”
“How do you deal with such people?” asked Dr. Denis. “The fact is there are some individuals who may never change their minds, who can’t be reached through contact or education.
“Their sense of group position is so entrenched.
“Nevertheless, the Canadian government can change its policies,” he noted. “There are many structural changes that should be made if we are serious about social justice in Canada, and it should be relatively straightforward to implement if only we could summon political will.”
These include fixing the funding formula for on- and off-reserve schools, equalizing child welfare funding for aboriginal and non-aboriginal organizations, and making sure all First Nations have access to clean drinking water.
“Ultimately, it’s going to require a combination of positive intergroup contact, historical education, more equitable distribution of resources [including increased support for aboriginal peoples’ own healing efforts], cultural and language programs, and self-government, which we know from past research is a link to better health and economic development, and finally ongoing dialogue on treaty relations and other issues.”
Regarding ongoing dialogue, Dr. Denis said many white residents say they want “finality,” they want land claims settled so they can get on with life, but that’s not how most Anishinaabe see it.
“In their view, we have a treaty relationship,” he explained. “What does that mean? A treaty is a sacred agreement to share the land and live together in peaceful co-existence.
“What exactly that looks like is something that needs to be negotiated on an ongoing basis.
“Treaties are signed in perpetuity—as long as the sun shines and the river flows. There’s no end point,” Dr. Denis added.
“It’s a relationship that needs to be nurtured continuously,” he stressed.
Dr. Denis said non-aboriginal Canadians and policy-makers need to be open to ongoing discussions and take them seriously.
The Ipperwash Inquiry of 2007, for instance, recommended the creation of a treaty commission in Ontario that could serve as a vehicle for such a dialogue while the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that governments have a constitutional duty to consult and accommodate the First Peoples, whether it’s forestry management planning or school curriculums.
The ongoing Truth and Reconciliation Commission also has potential to raise public awareness and model the kinds of discussions that need to happen across Turtle Island.
“I think we are starting to see a slight shift in attitudes and beginnings of a new relationship, both locally and across the country,” said Dr. Denis.
“Nonetheless, there’s still a long way to go before we overcome the apartheid of our minds and before all we understand our rights and obligations as treaty people,” he warned.