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Historian Jim Miller

Unearthing the residential school legacy

Historian Jim Miller’s comprehensive books on newcomer-Indigenous relations, residential schools and treaty-making were the first to delve into Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples and draw public attention to the problems.

His latest book, Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts its History, due for release in August 2017 also will be the first comprehensive historical study of reconciliation.

Miller’s study covers a lot of ground, including the apologies by churches in the 1980s for their role in residential schools, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the 1990s, the creation of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation in 1998, the litigation and settlement of claims by residential school survivors, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008.

Miller’s comments in January 2017 to the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples captured the essence of his remarkable work that spans four decades from when he joined the University of Saskatchewan in 1970.

“A proper understanding of this history can help us build for the future,” he told senators. 

He says Canada has made progress in improving the relationship with its first peoples since he first began researching and writing about it.

“Things have changed a great deal, with discussion, action, and reconciliation,” he said.

“It was unimaginable in the 1990s after the royal commission that many groups in society would be talking seriously about advancing towards reconciliation as we are now. We have a long way to go, but there has been a lot of improvement.”

Miller in 2010 was awarded the Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, the highest honour of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the prestigious Killam Prize in the Humanities in 2014 for his tireless work.

His 1989 book, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens, was the first comprehensive study of newcomer-Indigenous relations, with the Gustavus Myers Centre for the Study of Human Rights recognizing the work as an outstanding North American book on human rights.

Miller followed that up in 1996 with Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. The book was the first to delve comprehensively into Canada’s residential school system, and was used widely as an authoritative resource on the topic by Indigenous leaders, lawyers, public servants and journalists.

The book was an eye-opener for Canadians. Revelations about the horrific treatment of Indigenous children at the schools eventually led to class-action lawsuits, an apology in the Commons by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

His 2009 book, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-making in Canada, was the first exhaustive look at treaty-making in Canada. It’s being used not only in Canada but in Australia and New Zealand to understand the historical foundation for the relationship between Indigenous people and governments.

Now professor emeritus, Miller served as the Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations from 2001 until his retirement from the U of S in 2014, shortly before he was inducted as an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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