Jeffrey S. Denis, Canada at a Crossroads: Boundaries, Bridges, and Laissez-Faire Racism in Indigenous-Settler Relations, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2020. 384 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 978-1442614475.
JULIANNE DONER (JD): We are here to discuss Canada at a Crossroads by Jeff Denis, associate professor of sociology at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario). I am Julie Doner, a linguist, and I’m having a dialogue with Brian Fraser, a church historian. We were both part of a Canada at a Crossroads book club, facilitated by Steve Heinrichs, Director of Indigenous-Settler Relations for Mennonite Church Canada.
BRIAN FRASER (BF): What, in your formation as a Christian, makes you intrigued by this book?
JD: I was bullied as a youth, and that instilled in me a deep-seated concern for the outsider. My reading of the Bible only intensified that. Verses like Micah 6:8, Galatians 3:28, and James 1:27—powerful words of justice and inclusion—really transformed how I see and move through the world. As the Black Lives Matter movement intensified in the United States last summer, I read some news articles about how Canada’s racism problem is actually worse than the [United] States’ (contrary to popular opinion) when considered from the vantage of Indigenous peoples. Meanwhile, as a linguist, I was learning about the ways Canada’s Indian Residential Schools caused severe language endangerment amongst Indigenous peoples. Many of my colleagues blame the church for that, since the majority of these schools were run by Christian denominations. So, as a Christian, I was in this deeply uncomfortable and contradictory state of mind, and I wanted to learn more to see how I could make sense out of it. When the author’s brother, who is a colleague of mine, told me about this book club, it seemed like a good opportunity to explore these matters.
Why did you join the book club?
BF: My formation in the Christian faith has been in the Presbyterian tradition. At university and in my early ministry in Toronto, I was involved in a variety of social justice activities and coalitions. The biblical verse that inspires and informs me deeply is Hebrews 10:22–23, where, out of Christ’s faith in us, we provoke love and good deeds. I am a Canadian church historian and now minister with a small Presbyterian church in Burnaby, BC. I taught at Vancouver School of Theology during the early years of our Native Ministries Degree Program. It was a serious endeavor to build bridges. The program was designed and co-constructed with Indigenous colleagues. In that process, we went beyond educating each other to genuine dialogue in how to co-create a different future for forgiveness and reconciliation. That’s still very much a work in progress. I continue to be involved in communities that pursue the same dream.
One thing I bring to the table, when appropriate, is a deep understanding of the worldview that infused the culture of the residential schools. That philosophy/theology was central to my research about the Social Gospel, including the shadow side(s) of that movement.
JD: What, in your opinion, are the main ideas of Canada at a Crossroads?
BF: This [book] is a deep dive into what scholars call a “thick description” of the attitudes, behaviors, and consequences of the ways Indigenous and Settler peoples in the Rainy River District of Treaty 3 engage in relationship. The main ideas are two: we must seriously confront the laissez-faire racism that has shaped many of our deepest assumptions and aspirations. Further, we have to find ways to co-create improvements by engaging in both sustained dialogue and serious action—even disruptive action—to transform the dynamics of our shared life. Change won’t come simply through education, or even relationship. Action is necessary.
JD: Denis’s detailed descriptions as to how laissez-faire racism operated amongst the Settler community is a core contribution of the book. He shows how prevalent assumptions and attitudes about Indigenous “lifestyles” are ignorant of historical and structural matters, and rooted in beliefs about the supposed shortcomings of entire groups of people. It was fascinating (and depressing) to read how robust these assumptions are. They survive high levels of education and even close, personal interracial friendships and marriages. Moreover, even those educated whites who know the history and are aware of the structural injustices, they are, according to Denis, “no more likely to support specific policies designed to overcome racial inequality” (215). The issue isn’t ignorance. The issues are power and privilege.
BF: I appreciated how Denis came to these conclusions. Having genuinely immersed himself in the Rainy River District, he engaged diverse peoples in deep conversation, listening to the ways that they spoke of bridges and boundaries between Indigenous and Settler communities. And as he explores these, readers are offered a powerful set of tools for confronting ourselves with the dysfunctions that cry out for transformation.
This book was rich in challenging insights, like the idea that many of us whites justify our privileged group position through a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement. So, even though old-fashioned prejudice is rare, there’s still an internal, racial hierarchy at work—a white supremacy that’s used to defend and explain the status quo.
What was the most transformative insight that you found?
JD: I suppose the most challenging insight was that education and interracial relationships are not good enough to address structural racism. Action is required. I am much more comfortable as a learner than an activist, so this, again, puts me in an uncomfortable space. Yet I know that this work of bringing about justice, of loving one another—especially those different from us—is necessary and called for by God (again, Micah 6:8).
But this work is messy. Because true love does not mean making others be like you, or even meeting them halfway. True, sacrificial love is going beyond oneself to the “other.” Denis writes a lot about building “bridges” in his book, but I think bridges aren’t sufficient—we need fords. We need to wade through the mucky water that separates communities, humbly listening to hear where our own actions and thoughts cause harm. It’s kind of like the rich man who asked what one must do to receive eternal life. Jesus said to sell everything, but the rich man was not willing. People are often willing to give lip service to anti-racism, until it affects them materially or inconveniences them. I’m still not exactly sure how God is calling me to get messy in this work, but I am certain that God is calling.
But what do you think? Who should be reading this book, Brian? And what should they expect when they’re reading it?
BF: I think this book should be read by people who are ready to be provoked, and to have their attitudes and behaviors transformed. They will encounter hard truths, entrenched patterns, and possibilities for change that require a patient urgency to realize.
JD: Yes, agreed! I just hope folks aren’t thrown off by the very academic introduction. That was a bit hard to get through since I don’t have a background in sociology. But once I hit chapter 1, on the history of relations between the predominantly settler town of Fort Frances and Couchiching First Nation, I couldn’t put it down! Brian and I are academics, but I know that many in our book club weren’t, and we all came away graciously disturbed. I’m looking forward to the next book club.
Julianne Doner lives in Toronto, the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples, on land that is subject to Treaty 6, the Toronto Purchase, and the Williams (1923) treaty. Julianne is a recent graduate of the doctoral program in linguistics at the University of Toronto and is currently copyediting a book on Indigenous languages of North America and teaching at the University of Guelph-Humber (Toronto, Ontario).
Brian Fraser lives in Vancouver on the traditional and unceded lands of the Squamish, Musquean, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. He ministers with Brentwood Presbyterian Church (Burnaby, British Columbia), teaches leadership at City University in Canada, and provokes flourishing communities through Jazzthink.