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The perils of too much certainty

Once a top poet and bureaucrat, Duncan Campbell Scott is today a pariah for his policies of assimilation. What will be our own generation’s shame?

By Larry Krotz

Recent years have seen the government — and in some cases churches — apologizing for past sins: the Japanese internment, the Chinese head tax, Native residential schools. Yet barely discernible in these admissions was an examination of what we might be doing now that our children will have to apologize for in the future. Or even a discussion about what skills we need to alert us to our potential errors. It was a sore miss because, in each past case, it was not so much the malevolencies as the certainties that did us in. Which made me think of Duncan Campbell Scott.

One has to feel a modicum of sympathy for Scott. It’s politically incorrect these days to do so, but, being thoughtful people, we might see a bit of ourselves in a character so fallen from favour. Let me explain.

For those unfamiliar, Scott in the last century was a member of the Confederation Poets — the literary equivalent of painting’s Group of Seven. At the same time, he was the deputy superintendent general (or deputy minister) of the federal Department of Indian Affairs responsible for, among other things, the residential schools program. He was highly regarded in both fields. On his retirement in 1932, the Anglican Church’s Missionary Society thanked Scott for his wisdom, courtesy and “expert knowledge of the Indian peoples and their many problems.” Before his death in 1947, he’d been president of the Royal Society of Canada and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Toronto and Queen’s. As late as 1982, editor Margaret Atwood granted him 11 pages in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse.

But then something went horribly askew. Today, polite academics run for cover at the mention of his name, and First Nations activists curse him with the kind of venom normally saved for Adolf Hitler. In a 2001 book about Emily Carr, author Susan Crean called Scott a “thin-blooded bureaucrat” who “rather perversely . . . wrote lyric poetry that idolized the very vanishing race whose affairs he was governing.” Six years later, history magazine the Beaver (now Canada’s History) included him on its list of the 10 worst Canadians of all time. In 2010, the top prize for Ottawa-area poets was changed from the Lampman-Scott Award back to its original name, the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry.

In his recent book Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, poet and journalist Mark Abley has the ghost of Scott arrive in his living room. A bewildered Scott asks Abley: What happened?

One of the 10 worst Canadians of all time was born in 1862 in the parsonage of what would later become Ottawa’s largest Protestant church, Dominion Methodist. Young Duncan Campbell Scott wanted to study medicine, but his family couldn’t afford the tuition. So his father, Rev. William Scott, asked one of his acquaintances, Sir John A. Macdonald, whether he might find the young man a position in the federal civil service. In 1880, the 18-year-old Scott became a clerk in the fledgling Department of Indian Affairs.

An early objective of Indian Affairs was to transition First Nations people — by whatever means necessary — into what both the government and the society of the day believed was the mainstream of modern life. Legislatures both before and after Confederation promoted the assimilation project by passing the Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes (1857) and the Indian Advancement Act (1884). Scott, the bureaucrat, steered policies for residential schools and for “enfranchisement,” the loss of Indian status in exchange for citizenship rights (women who married non-Native men were automatically “enfranchised”). Assimilation was a venture Scott firmly believed in. In 1920, he told a parliamentary committee, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”

His phraseology is difficult to swallow today. But within the context of his time, both his attitude and words were representative of the wider Canadian community. He didn’t function in a vacuum; back in 1847, one of the consultants on the residential schools project was Egerton Ryerson, noted educator and founding editor of what would become The United Church Observer.

The phrase “kill the Indian, and save the man” is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Scott. In fact, U.S. cavalry officer Richard Henry Pratt, superintendent of the Carlyle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, made the statement. But when pushing for a bill that would both compel attendance at residential or day schools and promote involuntary enfranchisement, Scott did say, “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point.”

When apologies finally needed to be issued, it was as much for this — an attitude or mindset — as for any specific bad actions. Which is what ought to make Scott and everything about him relevant today. How, in the broader judgment of history, did he get it so wrong?

Toward the end of his book, Abley puts words in the mouth of his visiting ghost: “Wisdom comes easily to those who enjoy the privilege of hindsight. Wisdom thrives in the past tense. It is harder to discern the present.” The ghost of Scott then glances at a current newspaper, noting its dire headlines. “If you are fortunate enough to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will they hold you accountable for the failings of your time?” he asks. “What will seem obvious to them may be entirely opaque to you. They may be stunned at your obtuseness.” Indeed.

To address our obtuseness, surely one of the tools is language. “How we define ourselves is not a trivial matter,” writes University of British Columbia political scientist Alan C. Cairns in Citizens Plus: Aboriginal Peoples and the Canadian State. Actions follow thoughts, which are formed by language. The language Scott — and everybody he represented — embraced was that of “progress.” “Progress,” Scott wrote, “will be unnecessarily difficult so long as the Indians remain a distinct people and live in separate communities.” But questions like, “Whose progress?” or even, “What is progress?” seemed not to be considered.

The legislation guiding the residential schools employed other words and phrases that, in the end, proved equally difficult, such as “advancement” and “gradual civilization.” Were those choices of language Scott’s flaw? If so, what are the unquestioned certainties of our times, and what language do we use to propound them? What intrusions into the worlds of others are opaque to us, and what dodges do we employ to keep them so?

Scott’s multi-faceted identity — bureaucrat and poet with deep roots in Anglo-Canadian Protestant culture — made him the complete embodiment of his time. Embracing the values and objectives of that time, he truly could not see any way forward for the Indigenous population he had been given charge of other than to compel them to give up their traditional ways and join the industrialized, literate, Christian, Europeanized world. This deeply held belief — this mission — went unchallenged by mainstream society. Scott’s life experience, his culture, the white sphere in which he operated, all reinforced his conviction that he was on the right path.

Therein lies the problem and the challenge. It is easy to scramble from one side of the deck to the other when the conventional wisdom shifts, as it did for residential schools or the Chinese head tax. But in their day, conventional wisdom supported these atrocities. All of which brings us back to the original question: What are we doing now that our children will have to apologize for in the future?

It’s not hard to envision future government apologies for some of today’s hot topics: our dependence on fossil fuels, our slow acceptance of LGBT rights, our ongoing failure to respect First Nations treaties. Stretching the imagination a bit further, it’s also easy to speculate that we may one day say sorry to those jailed for selling marijuana, or to terminally ill patients denied a physician-assisted death.

But what’s nearly impossible to pinpoint are those ideas so insidiously embedded in our language and culture that they’re simply taken as fact. This is where we must train ourselves to take note of our thoughts, attitudes and arrogances — to check ourselves whenever we believe we’re acting in another’s best interest or in the name of the common good. This is where we have to stop and ask: Are we really so different from Duncan Campbell Scott?

Larry Krotz is a journalist and author in Toronto.



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