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J.R. (Jim) Miller

SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research

SSHRC Gold Meda Winner Jim Miller  

“All my research on native-newcomer relations has been motivated by one question: Why don't we get along? I'm always searching for the roots of this. Because if we can figure out the roots, we can work towards a solution.”

For nearly 30 years, historian Jim Miller of the University of Saskatchewan has examined the relationship between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal populations. Winner of the 2010 SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research, Miller has shaped public understanding of issues such as treaty rights and residential schools, while forcing Canadians to rethink our history together.

Now Canada Research Chair in Native-Newcomer Relations, Miller began his research career at the University of Toronto, studying the history of post-Confederation French-English relations. When he began teaching at the University of Saskatchewan in 1970, he says he knew next to nothing about aboriginal history, but being in a province with such a vibrant aboriginal population soon drew him to questions about key events that had marked the history between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

Praised for his rigorous archival work and his extensive use of primary sources, Miller was soon going through boxes of government and church documents, as well as interviewing federal bureaucrats, former residential school staff members and former students.

“Archival research is like being a detective,” says Miller. “That ‘Aha!’ moment when you find something . . . that is pure gold.”

Yet, his first “Aha!” wasn't exactly pleasant. While the abuse that occurred at many residential schools is now well known, when Miller began his research school survivors had yet to come forward and tell their stories. He says when he first uncovered written evidence that there had been serious abuse at a certain school, he was shaken and upset. Soon after, he did his first interview with a Cree woman who told him about the abuse her husband suffered as a residential school student.

“It was my first indication of how horrific these schools really were,” says Miller.

In 1996, he wrote Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools, the first history of residential schools in Canada. The book won an international award for the study of human rights, and has been used by aboriginal political leaders, public servants, journalists and lawyers involved in resolving abuse claims. Miller's expertise is also regularly called on by the Indian Residential Schools Adjudication Secretariat, where he gives lectures on the history of residential schooling to adjudicators-in-training. He also serves on the research advisory committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Treaty rights is another topic where Miller has been influential both inside and outside the university. Bounty and Benevolence: A History of Saskatchewan Treaties (2000), which Miller co-authored, was based on research he did for Saskatchewan’s Office of the Treaty Commissioner. In 2009, he published Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada, the first comprehensive overview of treaty-making in Canada. Called a masterful work of historical research and analysis, Compact, Contract, Covenant is being used in Canada and countries such as Australia and New Zealand to understand the historical foundation for relationships between Aboriginal Peoples and governments. Miller has also put his extensive knowledge of treaty-making to work developing classroom materials on treaty rights for schools across Saskatchewan.

In all, Miller has authored or co-authored nine books and more than 100 articles and book chapters. His earliest works, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Indian-White Relations in Canada (1989) and its companion volume Sweet Promises: A Reader on Indian-White Relations in Canada, have been adopted as required reading for history and native studies courses at universities across the country.

“If I had never come across native-newcomer relations, I would probably be a much less happy and much less productive academic today,” he says. “It is not just a field of study. It is in the news and present in our lives everyday. That's what makes it so rewarding.”

Watch a video of Miller speaking about his research. 

The SSHRC Gold Medal for Achievement in Research is the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s highest research honour. It is awarded to an individual whose leadership, dedication and originality of thought have significantly advanced understanding in his or her field of research, enriched Canadian society, and contributed to the country's cultural and intellectual life.