Friday, September 19, 2014
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Op-Ed: The troubling legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott


He was considered one of Canada’s preeminent poets, a writer whose verses sang of Canada’s natural beauty, whose poems painted pictures of Canadian wilderness that brought pride to a nation. He was also a heartless civil servant, the first superintendent of Canadian residential schools and a deputy minister of Indian Affairs in the early part of the 20th century whose policies targeting First Nations, many believe, meet today’s definition of the UN genocide convention.

Duncan Campbell Scott was born in Ottawa in 1862. His desire was to go into medicine, a profession that his family could ill afford. His father, however, Rev. William Scott, did have connections in the nation’s capital and managed to get his son a job within the Indian Affairs sector, then part of the Department of the Interior. Scott spent the rest of his professional career in Indian Affairs, eventually rising to deputy superintendent in 1923. And it is here that he callously enforced laws and regulations that were determined to assimilate Canada’s indigenous population into Canadian society.

Scott believed wholeheartedly in the residential-school plan for young aboriginal children, a policy Canada had adopted even before Confederation. He approached his job with the fervour of a zealot. Scott embraced the idea that removing aboriginal children from the reserve, forcibly if need be, and placing them in residential schools often many hundreds of miles from their homes was the only way, as he ominously stated, to “kill the Indian in the child.”

And yet this very same man who had such contempt toward aboriginals became a revered writer and poet. Indeed, he was classed as one of Canada’s “Confederation poets” along with other greats such as Archibald Lampman, a close friend of Scott’s, Isabella Crawford, Bliss Carman and Sir Charles Roberts, among others. A man who could enforce legislation that would rob First Nations of their culture penned poems that spoke at times with reverence of aboriginal people:

“Once in the winter

Out on a lake

In the heart of the north-land

Far from the Fort

And far from the hunters,

A Chippewa woman

With her sick baby,

Crouched in the last hours

Of a great storm,

Frozen and hungry,

She fished through the ice

With a line of the twisted

Bark of the cedar

And a rabbit-boned hook

Polished and barbed;”

(The Forsaken)

And yet in a subsequent poem Scott’s disdain for aboriginal ways becomes all too apparent:

“Now have the ages met in the Northern midnight,

And on the lonely, loon-haunted Nipigon reaches

Rises the hymn of triumph and courage and comfort,

Adeste Fideles

Tones that were fashioned when the faith brooded in darkness,

Joined with sonorous vowels in the noble Latin,

Now are married with the long-drawn Ojibwa,

Uncouth and mournful.”

(Night Hymns on Lake Nipigon)

It was the clash of reverence on one hand for nature and literature and his obsessive desire to whip the savage into his vision of a cultivated assimilated Canadian that made him so complex.

Scott had little time or heart for medical reports landing on his desk from his own medical officer of health, Dr. Peter Bryce, who warned him consistently of the ravages tuberculosis was taking on reserves and residential schools, far greater than seen anywhere in the country.

In an exposé entitled The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, after being summarily dismissed from his position as a medical officer, Dr. Bryce wrote of his findings:

“Tuberculosis was present equally in children at every age. In no instance was a child awaiting admission to (residential) school found free from tuberculosis; hence it was plain that infection was got in the home primarily. The disease showed an excessive mortality in the pupils between five and ten years of age.”

Bryce made a number of recommendations that might very well have saved hundreds, maybe thousands, of aboriginal children from suffering and even death. However according to Bryce “ … owing to the active opposition of Mr. D.C. Scott, and his advice to the then Deputy Minister, no action was taken by the Department …”

Duncan Campbell Scott may not have been the architect of early 20th-century assimilationist policies toward First Nations, but he indeed carried out the regulations with a cold and ruthless efficiency. Today as we engage in a much needed national conversation on whether these policies were, in fact, genocidal in nature, it behooves us to recall the words of Duncan Campbell Scott in response to Dr. Peter Bryce’s warnings regarding tuberculosis on reserves and schools:

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian Children lose their natural resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this department which is geared toward a final solution of our Indian problem.”

Bernie M. Farber is a writer and human rights advocate. He is senior vice-president for Gemini Power Corp. working in partnership with aboriginal communities to build sustainable industry on reserves.

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