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Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Mark Abley

Review By Keith D. Smith

June 19, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 225-26

Mark Abley was understandably alarmed when an impeccably dressed apparition appeared in his living room claiming to be Duncan Campbell Scott. An accomplished and respected poet, Scott spent over fifty years working in Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), an office he led for almost two decades before retiring in 1932. From his position at the helm of the DIA, Scott oversaw some of the most oppressive policies and legislation in Canadian history. While he was generally respected, even after his death in 1947, sixty years later he appeared in the results of a survey conducted by The Beaver, now Canada’s History magazine, as one of the ten worst Canadians. Scott has returned from the dead, then, to set the record straight and to choose Abley, himself a gifted poet, journalist, and non-fiction writer, as someone “who will be able to appreciate my work from the inside, as it were. I mean my real work, of course” (17). Scott’s real work was apparently his poetry.

In this work of creative non-fiction, Abley has Scott’s ghost drift in and out of his narrative, engaging in conversation, explaining himself, and asking for understanding. Abley is critical of DIA policy throughout, especially the shameful treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools and the continued effects of that treatment on families and communities decades later. He also demonstrates that Scott and his contemporaries, even in their literary work, underestimated the strength and resilience of Indigenous cultures. At the same time, Abley’s primary concern in this study is to work through the apparent contradictions between Scott’s poetry, which he sees as sympathetic to Indigenous people, and his work for the DIA. While certainly there is little compassion evident in Scott’s official correspondence, Abley seems not to entertain the notion that sympathy too, like DIA policy, can be an expression of power, feelings of superiority, and a colonial attitude. From this perspective, perhaps there is not such a gulf between Scott’s poetry and his writings as a bureaucrat.

Abley notes that because “this is a book intended for readers, rather than academic specialists, it is not weighed down by lengthy pages of footnotes” (223). Nonetheless, Abley has consulted a remarkable range of sources in the creation of this work and a bibliographic essay is provided for each chapter. With this depth of research it is puzzling that Abley seems not to have consulted Scott’s writings in the massive DIA document inventory in Record Group (RG) 10 available at Library and Archives Canada and on microfilm at various sites across the country.

His research does, though, allow him to carefully explain the intellectual, political, and social milieu in which Scott operated and to illustrate the racial attitudes prevalent in Canadian society and elsewhere, including the less than egalitarian views held by Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi. But Scott was far more than a product of his time or a man just taking orders from his political superiors. He pursued a policy of cultural suppression with much more enthusiasm than most of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, Abley is correct that Scott did not operate in a vacuum. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by Conversations with a Dead Man is that it reminds us that while it is easy to blame particular individuals for past and present injustices, we must all assume responsibility for educating ourselves regarding the situations now faced by Indigenous communities, and for working actively to right those wrongs in the present instead of waiting for politicians or bureaucrats to do it for us.

Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott
Mark Abley
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2013. 264 pp. $32.95