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Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott
Thursday 29 February, 2024

Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott

by Mark Abley (Saskatchewan and St. John’s 1975)

Mark Abley is the author of many works of nonfiction and poetry. His latest book is an expanded, updated edition of Conversations with a Dead Man: Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (Stonehewer Books, 2024).

What fascinated me about Duncan Campbell Scott? It was, I suppose, the contradictions in the man. A lover of wild nature, a connoisseur of good music and fine art, he enjoyed a reputation a century ago as one of Canada’s best poets. Some of his most compelling verses deal with the tragic plight of Indigenous people. He was widely regarded as an expert on the topic.

And indeed he was – not because he valued their cultures, but because theirs was a plight he oversaw. His day job was as a high-ranking civil servant in Ottawa, and the lives of more than 100,000 people lay under his direct control. In the nineteen years he spent at the helm of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott tightened the grip of the federal government on Indigenous people’s throats. They were wards of the state, and Scott had the power to decide what they could and could not do.

Perhaps he genuinely believed Indigenous children should be ripped from their families at the age of six, five, even four, and forced to live in boarding schools far from their home. He certainly thought that Indigenous languages were doomed to extinction – beautiful relics (he wrote an evocative poem about the splendour of “Indian Place-Names”) but useless for the modern world. He saw the assimilation of Indigenous people as a necessary goal. Like Cecil Rhodes, he believed in the destiny and greatness of the British Empire.

Today Scott’s reputation lies in ashes. His poetry is barely studied, and never without trigger warnings. He has become a symbol of everything that went so badly wrong in Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people. Other countries – Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the United States – have their own equivalents of the man. A.O. Neville, the “Chief Protector of Aborigines” in the Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, is one such figure. He too was confident that Indigenous people lacked a culture worthy of the name; he too set out to smooth the growth of civilization and created havoc instead.

What strikes me, looking back at Scott, is his overweening arrogance, an arrogance that is a regular temptation for many intelligent men and women who rise to a position of power. Scott never wanted to listen to Indigenous people – he went out of his way to avoid meeting them, even when their leaders had travelled for days to reach his office – because of his conviction that he already grasped their best interests. While thousands of children sickened and died in the boarding schools, Scott persisted in his department’s mission; to use a phrase from our own time, he saw their deaths as collateral damage. The work continued regardless.

Scott couldn’t allow himself to feel what he knew. No wonder he suffered from nightmares in his retirement. Thinking now about the ravages that technology, warfare and climate change are inflicting on vulnerable peoples around the world, I wonder what nightmares will afflict some of our current leaders.