Cover of the 2017 edition of A National Crime

Thanks to Maddie Knickerbocker, Leah Wiener, Sean Carleton, Stephanie Pettrigew, and, especially, Melissa Shaw for their help with this post. And special thanks to Ariel Gordon at the University of Manitoba Press for giving me the opportunity to review this book!*


Several months ago, when the University of Manitoba Press asked me to review the most recent edition of John S. Milloy’s A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, I was initially hesitant. Not only am I not a specialist in this field, but I kept wondering whether or not we needed another settler review of a book by a settler historian about Indigenous history in Canada. The jury is still out, but, after I finished reading the book, I do have some thoughts I’d like to share.

A quick caveat. This will not be a traditional book review. I may have literally written a guide to doing them, but since this book is nearly 20 years old and has already been reviewed numerous times, what follows is more of a meditation upon reading this book.


First published in 1999, A National Crime was one of the first comprehensive examinations of the Indian Residential School system in Canada, with a particular focus on the role that the Canadian government played in implementing and managing these schools from the 1880s to the 1980s.[1] The book is based almost entirely upon the historical analysis of government and church records, from sources such as Library and Archives Canada (then the National Archives of Canada), the Presbyterian, Anglican, and United Church Archives, and the Deschatelets Archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, as well as a wide variety of smaller archives and private collections scattered throughout the country. Among the documents Milloy consulted were documents from the Department of Indian Affairs, which were at the time (and I believe still are), closed to the general public. Access to these files was due, in large part, to the fact that Milloy had been working for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), though he was a historian and a professor at the time, and this book developed out of the research he conducted under their auspices.

A National Crime is divided into three sections. The first focuses specifically on the foundational ideologies of the residential school system, specifically its goal to “kill the Indian in the child.” The second section focuses specifically on the day-to-day operation of the schools from 1879 to 1946. And the final section, focusing on the period between 1946 and 1986, examines the dismantling of the residential school system and the integration of Indigenous children into public schools. Though there is a chapter devoted to the North and occasional references to the Métis, the bulk of the book focuses specifically on the schools attended by First Nations peoples. Milloy’s main argument is that deficiencies in the residential school system were largely attributable to funding shortages (more on this in a bit).

This latest edition, which contains an additional preface by Mary Jane Logan McCallum, was intended to recognize the important contribution that the book has made to the field of history in Canada, the role that it has played in bringing public awareness to the issue of residential schools, and to celebrate the University of Manitoba Press’s fiftieth anniversary.


Reading in Context

One of the things that I love most about monographs is that they are living texts. Each time I read or reread a particular book, I have a completely different experience. The same book, read in different contexts, can offer different lessons and insights. As I was reading A National Crime, I found myself asking, what has and hasn’t changed and what/who does this book speak to now?

When this book was originally published, The Globe and Mail insisted that it should be “mandatory reading for all citizens of the Americas.” It was hailed as a monumental achievement, primarily because it presented irrefutable evidence about the real conditions in residential schools. Once I was finished reading, I found myself wondering about the public impact of the book, especially considering that only about 66% of non-Indigenous Canadians have even heard or read about residential schools.  In many respects, I think the book has enabled settler Canadians to acknowledge this history in the safest way possible, as something that is in the past and that is unrelated to Canada’s history as a whole. What do I mean by this? While reading this book, I was struck by Milloy’s continued references to underfunding as the root of many of the problems with the residential school system, his failure to connect this to the larger issue of nation-building in Canada, and the dispassionate tone of the book. While I understand that the tone is largely the result of the style of history writing at the time, the overall effect, to my mind, paints residential schools as abstract, distant, and historical. In other words, they can be dismissed as a “dark chapter” in Canada’s history (I hate that phrase), a relatively isolated and “unfortunate” incident that was the result of a few bad apples. Or, to put it another way, what happened was horrible, but this history is dead and gone, and it has no relevance to the present and future of Canada. It also ultimately fails to connect the residential school system to the fact that the very foundation of the Canadian nation-state was and is built on the genocide of Indigenous peoples. I want to be clear here that I do not in any way think that this was Milloy’s intent, nor would he support this perspective. That said, I do think that this book has inadvertently played into this trope.

However, Melissa Shaw challenged me on this. She commented that these are important points. As she pointed out,  public awareness of residential schools is beside the point, because that is giving the public too much power. Further, knowing or not knowing about residential school is also largely irrelevant. The federal government was well aware of what was happening in residential schools during the entire time they were in operation. As she explained to me, this perspective assumes that real change will only happen when the power holders come to some kind of realization, an assumption that in turn reinforces existing hierarchies of power.

She also suggested that I flip the script, and ask what I think is a more important question: does this book allow access to historical knowledge that will allow for Indigenous peoples to find strength, agency, and power? Or, to put it another way, does this book help the people it discusses as objects in their resistance or, at the very least, to better understand the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the State?


Giving Back

My answer is that it does, somewhat. I think that this book is extremely useful as a reference when it comes to government policies and ideologies around residential schools. This is particularly the case given that Milloy had access to files that are still not available to researchers. The book is at its best when exposing how the government was fully aware of, and complicit in, what was happening in these schools. I found chapters six and seven to be particularly effective, on food and clothing, and neglect and abuse respectively. I also think that chapters nine and ten of the book, where Milloy discusses how the government transitioned from residential schools to foster homes and the welfare system, are particularly useful when considering how Indigenous children continue to be ripped away from their families and communities under the guise of “welfare.” I think that this type of resource might be helpful in particularly when it comes to contextualizing other stories, particularly those of survivors. And I cannot recommend McCallum’s preface enough.

But I think that this book needs to be taken with a grain of salt. This is because I think the book suffers from several fundamental flaws, noted above.  But from my perspective, I think the most serious problem here is that the book excludes Indigenous voices. Milloy explained in the Preface to the 1999 edition that he and the research team from the RCAP chose to not include oral history as part of this project, “because it would have been impossible to provide interviewees with any post- interview support,” which, in their eyes, would have been unethical. [2] While I can appreciate Milloy’s desire to avoid doing more harm, I think that this was a serious misstep. The TRC showed that while it is difficult to provide the necessary support services to survivors and their families, it is necessary that we do so in order to make room for their voices.  And at times, Milloy’s argument is undermined but his exclusion of oral history. Specifically, when Indigenous voices do appear in the book, they are always mediated through a government document, and, as Jan Hare and Jean Barman point out in their excellent review of the book,

Too often incidents from individual schools are offered by Milloy more as light relief or harsh reality than as contextualized first-hand reports. Such a statement as “a brief episode at Kitimat illustrates what was the norm throughout the system” is useless on its own without any sense of the nature of the particular school, the denomination in charge, numbers of children, or character of the local Aboriginal community. [3]


Speaking, Listening, and Voicing

In the end, taking this book as the authoritative source on residential school “exemplifies what the problem was in the first place;” namely the privileging of the voices of white Canadians rather than Indigenous voices.[4] We need to talk more about why this book is still considered the go-to text on residential schools. (It was even recently voted as one of 100 most important Canadian books ever written by the Literary Review of Canada.) Because as Marilyn Poitras, professor and former Commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls, put it:

We’ve been studied, we’ve been researched, we’ve gone and looked at Indians, and half-breeds and Inuit people for a long time to see what’s the problem. You tell us your sad story and we’ll figure out what to do with you. And we’re headed down that same path. And if it worked, we would all be so fixed and healthy by now. It doesn’t work.[5]

A National Crime was groundbreaking in its day, and it deserves to be honoured for that. But clearly we need to do more. And, as Melissa Shaw reminded me, I think that starts by questioning the assumptions and expectations that influence how we think about the history of residential schools. So rather than considering how settler Canadians benefit from reading this book, it is important that we remember that this type of approach replicates the power structures that permitted residential schools to persist in the first place.

With that in mind, if you would like to learn more about residential schools, I would also highly recommend testimony from actual residential school survivors, including books like The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, films like We Were Children, and websites like Where are the Children. You can also read the 94 TRC Calls to Action, Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, Paulette Regan’s Unsettling the Settler Within: Indian Residential Schools, Truth Telling, and Reconciliation in Canada, or any of these books on the TRC reading list. And finally, if you are a settler Canadian, and want to make a real contribution, I would highly recommend checking Crystal Fraser and Sara Komarnisky’s blog post on 150 Acts of Reconciliation.

For more information about A National Crimehere, please visit the publisher’s website .


And we’re back! As promised, I do have a couple of exciting announcements to make! First of all, I am very happy to announce that Unwritten Histories has expanded, and we now have a new editorial assistant, Stephanie Pettigrew! Stephanie will be primarily helping out behind the scenes, making sure that the list of Canadian Historians Online is updated more frequently, and updating broken links, but you can expect to see new blog posts by her from time to time! Find out more about her by visiting the About page here.

And second, I am extremely grateful to announce that Unwritten Histories is now being financially supported  by the Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University! Special thanks to Maxime Dagenais and Ian McKay for their help in making Unwritten Histories sustainable!

We have lots of amazing blog posts planned for the next several months, including a guide to comprehensive examinations (including comps list!), tips and tricks for SSHRC applications, returning favourites like Historians’ Histories, Resources Guides, and What’s in My Bag, as well as some fantastic new guest posts! I can’t wait. 🙂

As usual, I hope you enjoyed this blog post. If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for our regular Canadian history roundup! It’s going to be three weeks in one go this time… let’s hope I survive! I’ll see you then!


* A copy of this book was provided to Unwritten Histories free of charge for the purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.

[1] Though it’s important to recognize that the earliest residential schools actually date back to New France, and the last federally-operated residential school only closed in 1996.

[2] John S. Milloy. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986, second edition (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2017), xxxii.

[3] Jan Hare and Jean Barman, “John S. Milloy. A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986,” Historical Studies in Education 13, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 205.

[4] Hare and Barman, 206.


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