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Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools

by J.R. Miller

J.R. Miller is a highly regarded Saskatchewan historian, but he also has the makings of an outstanding coroner. In Shingwauk’s Vision, he has autopsied the barely cooled corpse of the native residential school system. With clinical precision he has examined every aspect of a wrong-headed and catastrophic experiment in social engineering that lasted for three-and-a-half centuries before the federal government finally stepped in and pulled the plug in 1969.

Miller began his study 10 years ago, not long after the government got out of the residential school business and just before widespread accounts of sexual abuse and cultural genocide began to surface in the late 1980s. It should be noted, however, that Shingwauk’s Vision is not simply a catalogue of warmed-over horror stories. Instead, it is the first comprehensive, even-handed examination of a cultural and evangelical misadventure that proved to be, as Miller reports, a tragic and colossal failure.

There were, at one time, 80 residential schools operated by various churches (60% of them by the Catholics) and financed by government. For more than a century the “typical” school operated like a missionary boot camp with students spending half the day in the classroom and half the day working. The boys farmed and cut wood, the girls cooked and cleaned. Supposedly representing a blend of academic and vocational training, the system in reality subsidized the school system with free labour, amounting in many cases to what Miller calls serfdom and slavery.

In hiring, the churches valued missionary zeal more than teaching skills. Although many teachers were dedicated and compassionate, too many, Miller reports, were misfits, perverts, and sadists. The residential school death toll, he reports, was “horrific.” Many died from tuberculosis and influenza. Many drowned or froze to death while trying to run away. And many more shattered “survivors” died in later life from alcoholism or violence.

Shingwauk’s Vision (which includes 1,200 footnotes, 100 photographs and 20 pages of bibliography) is written in the clear and dispassionate formal conventions of academia. The exception is Miller’s searing and emotional conclusion. Although the churches have not done enough to atone for their past misdeeds, Miller lays most of the blame at the feet of the Canadian people and a Canadian government that is guilty of what he refers to as malignant neglect. Worse yet, Miller warns that because Canada is still afflicted by racism and paternalism represented in what Miller sees as a we-know-best-what’s-good-for-you attitude, the horrors of the past could be repeated in the future.

As the first scholarly overview of native residential schools, Miller’s work is destined to be the reference on this subject for years to come. As a thorough, reasoned, and illuminating look at a sorry chapter of Canadian history, it is required reading and long overdue.