We, at the U of S, are all treaty people


Jim Miller is a professor of history in the College of Arts and Science and Canada Research Chair in Native-newcomer relations. He is a respected consultant on treaty and residential school issues, and his counsel is sought by governments and Aboriginal groups alike.

By Jim Miller

Students enrolled at the U of S this fall find themselves in a very different situation from their parents and grandparents. In contrast to the early 1970s, when it was impossible for a first-year student in Arts and Science to find a course that related to Indigenous peoples, in 2013 a student who seeks to flesh out the reality of us all being treaty people with some academic courses faces an embarrassment of riches. Over the past four decades the university’s perspective has shifted dramatically. Where once it almost completely ignored Native people, now the U of S makes studying and working with them a high institutional priority.

Why has this change occurred? In part, the current emphasis on Aboriginal people is the consequence of large-scale shifts in the various disciplines. History, for example, began to change in the 1970s, moving away from a preoccupation with Western history that featured European males to a more inclusive approach involving peoples who previously had been marginalized. In the movement to study these hitherto- neglected groups, some historians began to examine the history of Native people and their interactions with Europeans. The discipline of English developed a parallel interest in post-colonial literature that included examining Indigenous peoples throughout the English-speaking world. Education and law were among the earliest to respond, developing new programs 40 years ago. One of the biggest benefits of these curricular changes has been that Aboriginal students are now enrolled in larger numbers than ever before.

In many cases, these academic reforms were also responses to developments occurring outside the academy. The 1970s and ‘80s were a period of vigorous organization and political action by new bodies that represented First Nations, Métis and Inuit. Law was revolutionized by a Supreme Court decision in 1973 that held that Aboriginal title existed in Canadian law. Similarly, the adoption in 1982 of a revised Canadian constitution, with important clauses that safeguarded Aboriginal and treaty rights, galvanized the disciplines that studied any aspect of government, history or society. Academically speaking, many departments of the university were becoming “treaty people” as they responded to initiatives and pressure from outside. The result of this process is that the University of Saskatchewan is now very much attuned to Indigenous studies in its teaching, research and public service activities.

Does this change matter? Is it a good thing that a first-year student now has an opportunity to explore a rich array of course offerings that deal with Aboriginal peoples? Is the new state of affairs beneficial, or just an academic fad?

The relatively recent emphasis of the U of S on Indigenous peoples advances every aspect of the university’s mandate. Pedagogically, a course in Canadian history is enriched by including material on Aboriginal peoples. And non-Native students benefit from studying Native-newcomer relations. I will never forget the impact that a First Nations student had on a class that dealt with residential schooling when she mentioned casually that she and her parents had all attended residential schools. Last year, students in a fourth-year Native Studies course prepared posters on all the residential schools that had existed in Saskatchewan for display at the national event that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in Saskatoon. Both the students and the people who saw their work benefited from the university’s contribution to the study of Aboriginal peoples.

Faculty have also contributed through their research on a variety of topics. U of S faculty—and alumni—have published scholarly work and done useful applied work with First Nations and Métis peoples on treaties, land claims, educational and a host of other issues.

The transformation of the University of Saskatchewan from an institution that largely ignored Indigenous people to one that is now a leader in Aboriginal scholarship and knowledge has had a huge benefit. The changes allow us to play our role in a province in which we are all treaty people.

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