Outcomes of Contact Between White and Indigenous People in Canada, a Case Study

Intergroup contact between white and Indigenous people in a small-town settler-colonial context reduces overt racism but often reinforces the sense of white superiority. Avoiding public discussions of racism, befriending those with similar racial views, and viewing those who break racial stereotypes as exceptions that prove the rule all help perpetuate whites’ justifications for racial inequality.

McMaster Researcher


Denis, Jeffrey S. 2015. “Contact Theory in a Small-Town Settler-Colonial Context: The Reproduction of Laissez-Faire Racism in Indigenous-White Canadian Relations.” American Sociological Review 80(1): 218-242.

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What is this research about?

Earlier studies of racism showed that contact between members of different racial groups usually lowers interracial conflict. For this reason, we might expect whites who have direct contact with Indigenous people to be less prejudiced. The purpose of this study is to evaluate this hypothesis and to understand why contact does not always have the expected effects.

What did the researchers do?

The McMaster researcher lived in “Jackpine,” a small town in Northwestern Ontario, for 18 months between 2007 and 2009 to observe interactions between Indigenous and white residents. He also conducted in-depth interviews and surveys to assess the level of racism.

What did the researchers find?

Despite high rates of intermarriage and cross-group friendship, many white residents in Jackpine maintain a sense of group superiority. Contact reduces explicit hostilities, but many whites do not accept Indigenous people who exercise their Indigenous and treaty rights, seek a more equitable share of resources, or otherwise challenge the racial structure. The local culture in Jackpine discourages public discussion of racism, which contributes to persisting prejudices. Whites view Indigenous people who assimilate to white culture as "good Indians" and exceptions that prove the stereotype. Whites also befriend those with similar racial views, reinforcing their own beliefs. In these three ways, non-Indigenous residents manage to preserve their prejudice, while simultaneously having daily positive contact with Indigenous friends.
When people are racist, they often don't realize they are being racist. More than half of the white interviewees expressed a form of "laissez-faire racism", where they blame Indigenous people (rather than historical or structural factors) for Indigenous poverty and social problems. Many also express a colour-blind racism, saying we should all just be treated the same. However, this neglects the history of colonization and ignores the ongoing struggle for Indigenous self-determination.

How can you use this research?

Improving Indigenous-settler relations requires not only contact but also critical education, ongoing dialogue, and systemic change. Educators can use this research to help develop curriculum that focuses on racism in Canada and how to reduce it. Cities and towns with significant Indigenous populations can keep this research in mind when planning community engagement and outreach. Governments can use this research to inform policies involving Indigenous and treaty rights and reconciliation.

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