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Book Unpacks Laisse-Faire Racism In Indigenous Bordertown

Jeffrey Denis

Many places around the world have towns with predominantly white populations living in close proximity or directly on tribal land. Dr. Jeffrey Denis is an Associate professor at McMaster University in Canada wanted to see how small border towns like this talk about race. Wyoming Public Radio’s Taylar Stagner talked with Denis about his new book and the connections he made in Northwest Ontario.

Taylar Stagner: Settler colonialism is the idea that Indigenous people are being erased from their own land through generations of genocide, relocation, and contemporary erasure. I asked Denis about how he conducted his research.

Jeffery Denis: Yeah so, I ended up moving to Fort Francis literally lived there for about a year and a half. Got to know Indigenous and non-indigenous people through various community events, volunteer work, just kind of hanging out in the community. I did formal interviews with 160 residence about half were white and half were Indigenous including Anishinaabe and Metis people. Many of the white people would say if you’re looking for racism this is not the place where you’ll find it. We get along with our Indians. What’s going on with a statement like that? There are these relationships there are friendships and intermarriages but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that there is pervasive stereotyping and discrimination.

TS: Listening I was interested in how the white population saw the history of colonialism in their area.

JD: That was something that was in the past and we need to move on and be all equal now. This is interesting when you consider the inequities the injustices facing many Indigenous communities in Canada and the United States. Things like the lack of clean running water in many First Nation communities the housing
conditions. Employment rates and so forth. And yet you have this perception by many white settlers that Indigenous people are somehow advantaged. And getting all these things for free. And getting a free ride. In my survey of residence well over 90% of Indigenous people had multiple experiences of discrimination. That they talked about that were verifiable. Vivid examples of discrimination in schools. Being followed by people in stores. Being racially profiled by police. Stereotypes and assumptions at the hospital. I heard well over 200 stories.

TS: With so many Indigenous responses, I was curious if the white residences were as willing to talk with Professor Denis.

JD: Among the white people a few people reported that they were quite wary to speaking to me. So they were less likely to agree to formal interviews. I had one person respond when I told them I was researching relationships betweenIndigenous and non-Indigenous people and she said “I’m not touching that with a 10 ft pole.”

TS: I know Laissez-Faire means to not interfere; to be aloof. I asked professor Denis if that definition applies to the title of his book.

JD: Laissez-Faire racism is a term that comes from Laurence bobo who is a African American sociologist who talk about that in relation to black and white relationships in the states. And it’s basically that this attitude of let things be, it includes blaming Indigenous people for whatever social problems that they face. Whether its higher poverty rates other social issues. Blaming as individuals or communities for those problems. Oppose to attributing that to historical or social factors like racism or colonial polities that have created these conditions. One of the ways racism and inequality continue is because people don’t talk about it and don’t address the issue head-on. If you don’t address it then the status quo keeps getting reproduced. So, racism was a dirty word and something to be avoided so we don’t talk about colonialism, treaties, residential schools. These are all taboo subjects. As long as we don’t talk about that. People get along fine. Denis says he’s found similar situations in border towns across the country. He says the conditions that have been created in these areas are similar to what he studied.

TS: Professor Jeffery Denis’s book Canada at a Crossroads: Boundaries, Bridges, and Laissez-Faire Racism in Indigenous-Settler Relations is out right now.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.
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