- Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History by J.R. Miller
J.R. Miller, professor emeritus of history at the University of Saskatchewan, has published another timely and important book on the history of Indigenous/settler relationships in Canada. This one delineates how residential school survivors sought recognition of their sufferings and redress for their losses and how Canadian churches and the federal government have sought reconciliation with them and other Indigenous peoples in Canada. It is a complex story, beginning in the 1980s and running up until 2016. In step-by-step fashion, following the course of events, Miller describes the organizations and individuals involved, and the attendant factors like the national deficit or a booming economy, and assesses the progress towards reconciliation that has been made.
Chapter one covers the 1980s, dealing mostly with apologies that Canadian churches offered, primarily for their roles in running residential schools. Chapter two discusses the Oka crisis of 1990 and the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, which was part of the federal government's response to Oka. Chapter three describes how many of the commission's recommendations in its 1996 report went unheard in Ottawa as Jean Chrétien's Liberals struggled to rein in the federal deficit. Still, Indian and Northern Affairs officials did talk to residential school survivors, and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation (AHF) was created in 1998 and ran until 2010. Miller argues that the AHF had many successes, including helping communities launch healing programs, its publication program, and the Legacy of Hope Foundation that grew out of it. Chapter four covers the years 1998–2005 when Canada's legal courts became a major arena in which residential school survivors pursued [End Page 122] their claims. As Miller notes, in addition to financial compensation, survivors were looking for recognition and to be heard. The courts were ill-equipped to provide the latter. Survivors often felt re-victimized by the legal process. Churches feared bankruptcy. As the number of cases climbed, alternatives were sought. Chapter five describes the negotiations that led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Miller details how, amidst mounting pressure and with a pressing deadline, this watershed agreement was worked out by November 2005 and signed in May 2006. This was an important recognition of the claims of residential school survivors, and it laid the groundwork for programs and processes that further advanced the cause of reconciliation. Chapter six discusses how the IRSSA was implemented, with a number of quotations from survivors describing their experiences with the Common Experience Payment program and the Independent Assessment Process. Chapter seven discusses the federal government's apology delivered by Stephen Harper in 2008 and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Chapter eight describes the TRC's rocky start and how it worked. Miller credits it with impressive accomplishments and notes the importance it attached to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation. But he concludes that the TRC was part of the initial work towards reconciliation. The question is: will Canadian institutions and individuals follow through on its calls to action? The "Conclusion" summarizes the story told and rightly argues that a huge task remains to be undertaken if reconciliation is to be achieved. Land claims remain to be settled. Education and health care must become equitable. Treaties need to be honoured, and the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination needs to be respected.
This book recounts in accessible prose a remarkable period in Canadian history, which in future years will hopefully be seen as a turning point in settler/Indigenous relations. It will be useful for anyone teaching or researching in this area or for anyone desiring knowledge about the events it recounts. Every university and public library should have a copy.
School of Divinity, St. Andrew's College