Review of Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History by

Book cover for Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History

As Canada celebrated its 150th birthday this year, reconciliation was increasingly a buzzword on the lips of politicians, journalists, and celebrities. Most people seemed to recognize that we have a ways to go in our relationship with Indigenous peoples—but most people also seem unwilling to put that recognition into action. As my recent review of Seven Fallen Feathers shows, our country is still a hostile place when it comes to Indigenous lives. And the present situation is a direct result of the more-than-150 years of colonialism executed as official government policy, including the residential school system.

Residential Schools and Reconciliation is an historical overview of the actions taken by governments and churches involved in residential schooling in the years since the residential school system was wound down. J.R. Miller provides a brief description of residential schools but assumes the reader is generally familiar with the term. The book focuses not so much on the schools themselves, on the abuse and suffering, but rather on the ways in which our society and some of its largest organizational entities have attempted to respond to and reconcile the harm done to Indigenous peoples. Miller’s book is very scholarly but never too technical or too dry, and their treatment of the subject matter is both sensitive and comprehensive. I’ve been reading a lot about residential schools over the past few years, but I still managed to learn so much from this book.

Miller begins by examining the apologies offered by the official church bodies that ran or co-ran residential schools. He discusses why these apologies came about, the internal strife that often accompanied them, and the reactions on the part of survivors and Indigenous members of these congregations. While I was aware of the role that many churches had played in residential schools, and that various attempts at apology had happened, Miller helped fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. I appreciate the way he highlights how different survivors reacted very differently to these apologies. There is a tendency for settlers like myself to paint Indigenous issues in these broad, sweeping generalizations: oh, Indigenous people are opposed to pipelines; Indigenous people are upset with Trudeau’s government, etc. The reality is, unsurprisingly, so much more complex. The more I follow and listen to Indigenous people, particularly on Twitter, the more I get a glimpse of the internal arguments—arguments that I’m not party to, that I don’t participate in, because they are none of my business, but that reveal and remind me of the great diversity of individual and cultural voices within the group settlers have labelled “Indigenous”.

A great deal of Residential Schools and Reconciliation focuses on this idea of whether or not the responses have been appropriate and sufficient. In their discussion of the church and, later, government apologies, Miller refers to the criteria for a successful and intentional apology as outlined in The Age of Apology. He points out areas in which the apologies worked well, such as the way they have allowed some survivors to open up, come to terms with, or more openly express their feelings about their experiences. He also points out where people or groups have expressed dissatisfaction with the apology process.

Next, Miller chronicles the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP) and how its mandate gradually shifted to include residential schools as the commissioners recognized how important it was to the people they interviewed. This chapter and the next, which details the government’s response to RCAP’s report, are full of details that, at times, bogged me down—but it’s very interesting, and I suspect someone reading this for purposes of research will find it extremely useful.

I was more interested in the next part of the book, which discusses the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Basically, government was tired of being taken to court so many times, so they eventually agreed to litigate everything en masse and have one big settlement. Obviously I’d heard of this, but Miller does a good job explaining how it came about, what it entailed, and who did and did not benefit. It’s really messy and really, really bureaucratic. In general, it just gives you a good sense of why Indigenous people are so fed up with trying to deal with the governments—for every little bit of ground (sometimes literally, if we’re talking about land claims) regained, kilometres of red tape must be negotiated. The result is a process so dehumanizing that it retraumatizes the people who have already had their dignity and humanity stripped from them once by the government.

The final part of the book concerns the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, along with related attempts by the government to advance the cause of reconciliation. The TRC’s final report was only released a few years ago, so this is still fairly fresh. I learned a lot about the origins and workings of the TRC that I hadn’t—I knew it had been funded by the money from the settlement, but I didn’t know there were three original commissioners who eventually ended up resigning and the commission essentially restarted after that! Reminds me a lot of the current inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

One conviction, which this book strengthened for me, is that the government still doesn’t get it. I think individual people do—some of the politicians and some of the public servants who, collectively, run what we call “government” in this country. But the system as a whole remains a very colonial and racist institution. It is obsessed with, beholden to, budgets. It wants to bottom-line the issues of residential schools and reconciliation, to attach a dollar value, to pay that out, and then declare the matter closed. As long as this type of thinking prevails, reconciliation can’t truly happen. The government has to stop saying, “OK, if we do this, then we’re even. OK, if this happens, then we start fresh.” That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works. But the government keeps trying it, because it is scared that if it actually ever admits how much work it needs to put into reconciliation, then voters will revolt over the potential cost. That’s why it’s so important for settlers to educate themselves on these issues—because, yeah, it will cost taxpayer money to fix this mess. But the human cost of not fixing it is so much higher.

Much of what I have read or watched about residential schools focuses on explaining the schools themselves and what survivors endured there. Those are important stories, of course. And I was sceptical, going into this book, precisely because I was wondering what an academic might reveal that I haven’t been learning from other sources closer to the issue. Yet Residential Schools and Reconciliation actually serves a very important purpose. It educates about the response to residential schools, what happened afterwards, much of which occurred at a time when I was too young to appreciate what was happening in our society. I’d highly recommend this volume for anyone with an interest in the steps that churches, governments, and survivors have taken, and that after reading, you ponder whether or not it really is enough.

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