Revisiting a reviled Canadian legacy

Mark Abley takes an updated look at Duncan Campbell Scott

By Wayne Larsen

March 14, 2024

So effectively did Duncan Campbell Scott perform his job that for a whole generation of Indigenous people, his was the defining voice of Ottawa, the government’s stone face. When they dared to submit a complaint or make a request, his was the declining signature scrawled at the foot of the letter. His power was so great that today he stands accused of genocide.

– Mark Abley, Conversations with a Dead Man

Duncan Campbell Scott—familiar to most as a prominent name in dusty CanLit anthologies, his verse praised for its jolly portrayal of Indigenous life in early Canada—is another Confederation-era hero whose reputation has been taken down several notches, but in this case not so much for his poetry.

Scott’s day job, as head of the federal Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, placed him front and centre in a horrendous chapter in Canadian history. As a primary architect and custodian of the Residential School system, he was ultimately responsible for implementing many of the horrendous policies that have only recently come to national attention.

Now, as statues are being pulled down and Canada’s mainstream news media can’t get enough Indigenous stories, Scott is a hot topic—so much so that a 2013 exploration of Scott’s increasingly bleak legacy has been updated and repackaged. In Conversations with a Dead Man: Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, Montreal poet Mark Abley took on the unenviable task of presenting the human side of the man while trying to maintain objectivity in the face of overwhelmingly damning historical evidence.

Conversations with a Dead ManOriginally published by the now-defunct Douglas & McIntyre, Abley’s recently revised and updated second edition of Conversations with a Dead Man has been published as the debut publication of the newly minted Stonehewer Press.

The book was conceived as a conventional biography of an unconventionally complicated historical figure. Abley describes Scott as an excellent poet, but when confronted with his record at Indian Affairs, there could be no defending him. “I realized I didn’t want to write that book; it would have involved keeping that detached, objective, third-person perspective that didn’t seem suitable for the issues I was writing about,” Abley recalls. “I had read a piece in what was then called The Beaver (now Canada’s History) with Scott being named one of the worst Canadians of all time. That really struck me—putting him in the company of Adrien Arcand, who headed the Nazi Party in Canada in the 1930s and 40s. That’s pretty extreme.”

As the title suggests, Abley solved the objectivity problem by putting a spin on the traditional approach. Scott would speak for himself in a series of imagined encounters with his present-day biographer. This could be risky—an unnecessary gimmick in the face of such sensitive material. But given the author’s approach and the subject of their conversations, it works. The narrative unfolds like a play where a ghost drifts in and out of each scene to offer insight and reflect upon the protagonist’s probing questions. Abley draws Scott out of the past and imagines him in a 21st-century setting, reflecting upon his deeds from a contemporary perspective while sitting at Abley’s kitchen table. What emerges is a portrait of a man at odds with his own legacy.

‘Residential Schools and the efforts to assimilate First Nations people—one of Scott’s objectives, we learn—form the primary focus of their conversations.’

The decision to allow Scott to express himself directly came naturally, Abley recalls. “I was doing a lot of research on Scott, and on my daily cycle rides or walks, I was kind of talking to him in my head. How was it that this man, who seemed to have a genuine concern for his fellow writers and artists—he was a patron of the arts and apparently an admirable figure in all sorts of ways—could be responsible for all these appalling things that happened in Canada? So finally, it moved from ‘How could he?’ to ‘How could you?’ and the best way to do that was to get Scott to explain himself in his own voice—or at least the best simulation of his voice I could come up with.”

Abley furnishes the obligatory biographical details of the Confederation poet, but once he gets his subject talking, the main points of interest emerge. Residential Schools and the efforts to assimilate First Nations people—one of Scott’s objectives, we learn—form the primary focus of their conversations.

No redemption for Scott

Although Abley was aware of Scott’s tarnished legacy when he began the extensive research for this book, he had hoped to unearth evidence that might absolve the man to some degree. Instead, he didn’t like the figure who emerged.

“I’m afraid my opinion of Scott changed for the worse,” he recalls. “To my amazement, because he was a poet and a lover of the arts, he clamped down on Indigenous cultural practices, such as potlatches, dancing and drumming, more than his predecessors had, and more than his successors did.

‘I thought I might find evidence that Scott tried to improve the lot of Indigenous people,” Abley laments. “I didn’t find any.’

– Mark Abley, Conversations with a Dead Man

“Going in, I didn’t realize he had as much control over the Department as he did. I knew he was Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, but I didn’t realize that meant he had complete control because to a large extent, the politicians didn’t interfere with him—Indian Affairs was not a matter of public debate. Scott ran the show. Any reasons that might excuse him all disappeared. I discovered it was very clear that he did get reports from agents in different parts of the country talking about abuses, and he did choose to ignore Indigenous voices. He did persecute in a very vicious way those who disagreed with him, especially the Mohawk and Six Nations in Ontario.”

Scott’s reputation as a pioneering Canadian poet will no doubt survive the passage of time, but his legacy as a civil servant remains beyond redemption.

“I thought I might find evidence that Scott tried to improve the lot of Indigenous people,” Abley laments. “I didn’t find any.”

Conversations with a Dead Man: Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (Revised and Expanded) by Mark Abley, is published by Stonehewer Books.


Feature image: Old Sun Indian Residential School, 1945, General Synod Archives, Anglican Church of Canada

Wayne Larsen

Wayne Larsen is a newspaper editor and columnist whose work has appeared in several print and online publications. His freelance career included work as a news and feature writer for The Gazette and an advance copy editor at Reader’s Digest Canada. From 2000 to 2010 he was editor-in-chief of the Westmount Examiner.

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