News / Insight
The ghost of Ottawa bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott returns to discover how his plan for Indian residential schools worked out
By: Mark Abley - Opinion
In this excerpt from Conversations with a Dead Man, the ghost of the Ottawa poet and bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947) is chatting with the book’s author, Mark Abley. Scott spent 52 years in the Department of Indian Affairs, where he oversaw the residential schools and rose to become deputy minister. When he died, he was among the most respected men in Canada. Today his name is widely linked to cultural genocide.
“You know, I was in Winnipeg a few weeks ago,” I said, leaning forward and watching him closely.
“An interesting place, I always thought. Despite its failures of beauty.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“Beauty, or duty?”
“Its somewhat discordant appearance,” Scott said. “When a Scottish journalist named Bob Edwards got off the train there and looked around, he said, ‘So this is Winnipeg. I can tell it’s not Paris.’ Not that Winnipeg was any uglier than a few other cities I could name. Tell me, has the country finally begun to appreciate the virtues of good architecture?”
I was puzzled. It seemed as though on his third visit Scott wanted to chat, wanted to digress.
“We have some beautiful new buildings and some others that are very – striking, for better or worse. You’d be astonished if you could see what’s happened to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario College of Art. But overall, let’s say civic beauty is still a work in progress.”
“I understand.” Scott paused. I could have sworn he sighed. “So what did you want to tell me about Winnipeg?”
“I was there for a literary festival,” I said. “It occupied most of my evenings, but the days were free. And one morning the friend I was staying with — she’s a social worker — took me to the head office of CancerCare Manitoba. They have a lecture theatre where experts come and give talks to doctors and nurses and medical students. My friend kind of sneaked me in.”
“Sneaked me in,” he repeated. It must have been a novel turn of phrase for him.
“Yes. But that day, the talk wasn’t given by any of the usual experts — not by anyone directly involved in the practice of medicine. It was given by a judge, Murray Sinclair.”
“A good Scottish name.”
“Absolutely. As well as serving on the bench, he teaches law at the University of Manitoba. He’s widely respected across the country.”
“I imagine so.”
“He has another name too,” I said. “Mizanay Gheezhik — meaning ‘the one who speaks of pictures in the sky.’ My Ojibwa pronunciation isn’t what it should be.”
Scott was silent.
“Of course it’s a good idea for medical professionals there to be familiar with aboriginal issues, because Winnipeg has more indigenous residents than any other place in the country. And Murray Sinclair is not only a judge, a professor and an Ojibwa elder — he’s also the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.”
He remained silent. I forged ahead.
“That commission is at work as we speak. Its mandate is to find out everything it can about what really happened in the Indian residential schools, and to see if there can be some kind of reconciliation at the end of all the truth-telling. The commission has its headquarters in Winnipeg. But it’s been holding sessions in a variety of places to listen to the testimony of survivors. I’ve read the report it released in 2012. I expect its final report will be even longer and more detailed.”
Scott had recovered his voice, though now it had a tense edge again. “And why should there be such a commission at this point in history, many years after the last school was closed?”
“Well, it’s part of the compensation package the federal government and the Assembly of First Nations agreed to. The deal was not only that the survivors would receive some money — it’s also that a commission would be set up, giving them a chance to speak. To share their story. And besides, it’s important for Canada as a whole that these testimonies should be on the public record. Should be heard. Should be preserved. So that nothing like this could happen again.”
“Hmm.” Scott stirred uneasily. “And what did the Honourable Mr. Sinclair have to say in the lecture you attended?”
“He spoke about the different types of negative impact the schools had on the children who were sent there. Being victimized directly is the most obvious one. But there are others too. Judge Sinclair explained the fear of disclosure — children were threatened with consequences if they told their families what went on behind closed doors. Sometimes they were afraid to return to their communities, especially girls who had been violated and were now pregnant. When they did get home, boys and girls found they were inadequate at the traditional skills and tasks — they’d never had a proper chance to learn. And of course the children suffered a loss of faith, a loss of trust, a loss of belief in their parents and the extended family.”
I paused for a second, giving my words a chance to sink in.
“Judge Sinclair said that he and the two other commissioners hear these stories by the hundreds. And they feel the suffering each time.”
“The Honourable Mr. Sinclair has evidently done well in the world. May I ask what the current state of affairs is for the majority of his fellow Indians?”
“Interesting you should say that,” I replied. “Another thing he mentioned was the intergenerational effect of the schools. Because it’s not just the survivors who were scarred. He used the phrase ‘residual impacts in the lives of their children.’ And even grandchildren.”
“You must enlighten me.”
“Well, he showed a film presentation about an Inuvialuit elder from Tuktoyaktuk. The man –”
“Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean. I suppose it had a colonial name in your day. Today we take it for granted that most of the communities in the far north go by their Inuit names. Anyway — until the day of the hearing the man had never spoken about his experiences at residential school. His own wife didn’t know what he’d been through. He recalled being put on a plane one morning, flown south and, like all the children, given a number. In a sense that’s all he was: a number. For Judge Sinclair, the most powerful moment of the man’s testimony came when he said, ‘I’m not Number 142. I’m Paul Voudrach.’ ”
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with — what was your phrase? — intergenerational effect.”
“Paul was sexually abused in the school. Later in life he contemplated suicide. But the point is, when he became a father, he mistreated his own children. He admitted, you see, he didn’t know how to be a parent. Judge Sinclair said that when they testify, at least 80 per cent of the survivors talk about how they went on to behave, or misbehave, with their own families in later life. So the shame they experienced as children gets compounded by the shame and guilt caused by their own actions.”
Scott sniffed. “I’m surprised at how you keep on using the word ‘survivors.’ Admittedly an Indian school could be a difficult place for children, but it’s not as if they’d been through the trenches serving their country in the Great War.”
“Isn’t it?” I said.
He stared at me. “No. It isn’t.”
“All right,” I said, staring back. “Let’s think about what they went through. Imagine that instead of being raised by your loving parents, as you were, in the company of your sisters, you were hauled away by strange men when you were 6 or 5 or even 4 years old. You were terrified, because you had no idea where they were taking you. The journey was long, and when you finally arrived, you were locked up inside a large, cold building. Your hair was hacked away. The clothes your mother had made for you were stripped off and you had to put on a foreign uniform. You wore this uniform all through your childhood and adolescence. There was no alternative. There was no escape.
“In your early childhood you’d lived outside much of the time. Now you could leave the school building only when the adults granted permission. You were given a number. You were known by that number. If you dared to use your own name, or if you were caught speaking a sentence in your own language, you were beaten. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ your teachers said. Gradually you forgot your language. When you were sent home in the summertime, you couldn’t understand your own grandparents. Nor could you tell them what you were going through.
“Back at school you were told, day after day, year after year, that you belonged to an inferior people — you had no culture of your own. You were a savage, and your teachers were civilized. They understood God; you did not. And the God they understood was a jealous God who intended to consign your own parents and grandparents to the fires of hell. A few of the teachers were kind, but only a few. Most of them were incompetent and two or three were downright sadistic. The fear of them was so great, you could never entirely relax.
“You learned to live with constant hunger — the food was bad and there was never enough of it to fill your belly. The clothes you wore were ragged and dirty. The building where you spent most of your life was dark, ugly, infested with cockroaches, and in perpetual need of repair. At night you slept under a thin blanket in a miserable bed, with children coughing all around you and no fresh air. Over the years a few of the children in your dormitory died, or perhaps more than a few — but nobody was ever allowed to talk about their deaths. The absolute rule was silence.
“Let’s suppose you were one of the lucky ones. Let’s suppose you somehow managed to avoid coming down with tuberculosis, and that you weren’t sexually assaulted by a teacher or one of the older boys. Of course you knew this was happening to many of the other children. Everyone knew it. You lived in fear, continual fear, that one day it would happen to you.
“More than anything else, you were isolated. From the first day you arrived at the school, you were lonely. You were always lonely. But Mr. Scott, if you endured 10 years of this and were able to walk out the door at the end, wouldn’t you call yourself a survivor?”
I swallowed hard and glanced out the front window at the tree-lined street. When I looked back, Scott was no longer there.