Professor emeritus of history and Canada Research Chair Jim Miller moved from Ontario to Saskatchewan in 1970 knowing very little about Canada’s Indigenous peoples or their history—the subject in which he would go on to become a pioneer in researching.
According to the website of Governor General David Johnston, the Order of Canada is given to individuals who have “enriched the lives of others and made a difference to the country.” Several different ranks are present within the order. The rank of “officer” awarded to Miller recognizes national service or achievement and is the second-highest honour possible in the order.
Since he began his research into the history of native-settler relations, Miller has worked for the Saskatchewan Office of the Treaty Commissioner, served on the research advisory committee of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and written one of the first histories of Canadian residential schools, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools.
Over the past four decades, Miller’s research into the history of Aboriginal peoples has greatly contributed national understanding of injustices inflicted upon First Nations and also led to programs aimed at increasing awareness of these issues such as “Teaching Treaties in the Classroom.” Miller helped develop this curriculum for Saskatchewan schools and it has since been made mandatory by the provincial government.
When asked about whether there had been a specific event or moment which led him to a career in the history of native-settler relations, Miller said there was no single experience that led him to the field.
“It was a general impression,” said Miller speaking of his initial move to Saskatchewan. “You move to a new place and you try to figure out things that are a little different, and one of the things that was visibly different [from Ontario] of course, was the strong presence of Aboriginal peoples and First Nations and Metis.”
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indians, according to Miller, was one of the earliest and most effective advocacy groups for First Nations. Along with the Association of Metis and Non-Status Indians, the two groups represented voices Miller had not heard previously in Ottawa.
Miller had a pragmatic answer to what was the most important thing he learned in his decades of research into native-settler relations.
“Probably the most important thing I learned was it is possible [for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples] to get along, and you just have to find a basis for working together for that to happen,” said Miller, after outlining how it had initially been common economic interests such as the fur trade that brought First Nations and Europeans peacefully together.
It was settlement, Miller said, that began to create disruption in native-settler relations. While the process is now irreversible, he also said that relations have almost come full-circle once more, as federal and provincial governments across the country eye resources that can only be reached in, under, or through reserves.
Pointing to examples of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and the “Ring of Fire” mineral belt in northern Ontario, Miller said that governments across the country are in a position where they must negotiate with First Nations people holding resource-rich territory in order to forward their economic plans.
“Once again we find ourselves needing the cooperation and active participation of Aboriginal people,” said Miller.
He said that progress on this front, while occurring, has been incremental and that Aboriginal people continue to suffer serious socio-economic disadvantages as a result. Miller stressed that Canada not only has an economic imperative to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, but a moral one as well.
“If we’re going to have a healthy country, if we’re going to have a Canada that we like to brag to people about, then we need to deal with this running sore of the problems that Aboriginal people face.“
As for why there isn’t more political will to help solve the numerous problems Aboriginal Peoples face accessing adequate housing, education and even drinking water, Miller responded with: “Politicians respond to public opinion.”
He said unless the public became aware of the causes of problems Aboriginal peoples face, little pressure would be put on political leaders to be responsive to Aboriginal issues.
Miller felt that with regards to informing the public, the Idle No More movement that took place in 2011 was historic in its mobilization of the country’s Aboriginal youth and grassroots in a unique way.
“I think what’s so innovative about [Idle No More] is that it was a new generation outside the political structures taking it upon themselves to organize and to speak out, and to do so very effectively,” said Miller.
Even though the movement was unable to reach its goal of defeating the legislation that threatened the protection of many Canadian waterways, Miller said it was able to effectively communicate its message to the public using social media.
“The other striking thing about Idle No More of course is that implicitly it’s also an indictment, a criticism of the political leadership of Aboriginal groups as well,” said Miller. “So there are lessons to be learned by non-Aboriginal political leaders and Aboriginal political leaders as well.”
When asked about whether he would have have become the same person if he’d pursued his original interest, French-English relations, Miller smiled.
“No, absolutely not. [The study of native-newcomer history] has had a profound effect on me. It’s made me a lot more aware of social justice issues than I was… The other thing is that it gave me an understanding of how some societies organize themselves.”
Miller reflected that Aboriginal cultures have much to teach others.
“There are lots of things about Aboriginal society that I think are admirable,” he said. “The strong emphasis on relationships, the strong emphasis on helping one another. I think it’s really quite inspiring. I think the rest of us could learn a lot from it”
Asked whether he ever expected the Order of Canada for his work, Miller replied “Never in a million years. It was a wonderful surprise.”