Increasingly it is Indigenous writers who are telling the story of their peoples’ relations with European settlers, which is as it should be. I am thinking, for example, of Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers and her more recent book All Our Relations, which is based upon her Massey Lectures delivered on CBC Radio in November 2018.
But there is a place, indeed a necessity, for settlers to write unflinchingly about that same history. One who has done so is Mark Abley, a talented Montreal author and editor. In 2013, Abley published Conversations with a Dead Man, a book about Duncan Campbell Scott, the bureaucrat who led the Department of Indian Affairs for decades in the early 20th century. One of Scott’s tasks was to oversee and defend Indian residential schools, which he did with great determination.
In its report into the history and legacy of those schools, issued in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) described them as the agents of cultural genocide. Other eminent Canadians – including former Prime Minister Paul Martin and former Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin — have labelled the schools in exactly the same way.
For those who may not know, the schools existed for more than 150 years and hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken away from their families to attend them. They were forbidden to speak their native languages; their culture, communities and religious practices were ridiculed; many suffered physical and sexual abuse; and as many as six thousand died of disease or in attempts to escape.
Duncan Campbell Scott
Duncan Campbell Scott was Canada’s most notable proponents of the schools. Abley describes it this way in his book: “Scott oversaw the residential schools. He expanded their number and scope. He rewrote parts of the Indian Act, making attendance in departmentally approved schools a requirement for all Aboriginal children on reserves . . . he knew that most of these schools were shoddily built havens of infectious disease. But, as a prudent guardian of the government’s finances, he resisted calls to fund the schools more generously.”
The question is why Scott was so single-minded in his intent not only to impose the schools, but also to have Indigenous peoples cease to exist entirely. It is here that Abley’s book is so useful. In the past 20 years, Scott has been cast as an almost cartoon-like racist propagating genocide. Abley does not excuse Scott (far from it), but he does places him within the context of his times.
Rather than writing a strictly historical account, Abley uses a fictional technique to bring Scott back to life. Scott returns from another world and surprises Abley on a number of occasions while he is mowing his lawn or sitting in his living room. Scott is aware, although incompletely, that his reputation is now in tatters. He wants Abley to find out why, and to redeem him with contemporary Canadians, which Abley, after doing exhaustive research, is unwilling to do.
Ugly conventional wisdom
By using this literary device, Abley allows Scott to speak in his own defence. In this way Scott becomes neither a monster, nor an aberration, but rather someone who believed and acted upon the “conventional wisdom of his time.” That ugly wisdom held that Indigenous people were inferior to Europeans; that their civilization was dying out and, indeed, did not deserve to be saved; and that the best outcome would be for them to be assimilated entirely into Canada’s European and mainly white society.
To that end Scott drafted amendments to the Indian Act. He spoke to them before a House of Commons Committee in 1920, and said this: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem . . .That is my whole point. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and that is the whole object of this bill.”
That is a stunning and arrogant statement but Scott’s presumption has turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Far from disappearing, the Indigenous population is growing. And rather than being assimilated Indigenous people won recognition of their historic rights in Section 35 of the Constitution Act passed in 1982 – even though the precise definition of those rights remains to be defined.
Scott’s racist contemporaries
But, as Abley tells us, Scott’s contemporaries in Canada and elsewhere were saying even worse things than he was. Winston Churchill, while serving as Britain’s war secretary in 1919, wrote this: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes . . . It would spread a lively terror.”
Closer to home, when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was negotiating Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation in 1948, he asked about the Indigenous people in that soon-to-be province. A Newfoundland delegate responded: “We don’t have any sir. We shot them all.” There was general laughter in the room. King replied: “I suppose that’s one way of dealing with a problem of that kind.”
Abley’s point is that “racism was deeply stitched into the fabric of Western society.” People in Scott’s time were “casually, carelessly, unthinkingly” racist. Abley says there is no excuse for such toxic arrogance then or now, but he fears that many Canadians remain largely ignorant of their history. Far too many people, Abley says, tell pollsters that Indigenous people are treated well and even that the government gives them too much.
“Open your minds”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report in 2015 confronted the tragic legacy of Indian residential schools and the context in which they existed. However, one of the commissioners, Chief Wilton Littlechild, predicted: “There are many people will pull down the blinders and pretend that this isn’t their issue. We are calling you to open your minds . . . This is not an Aboriginal issue. It’s a Canadian issue.”
Abley’s book appeared two years prior to the TRC’s report, but he was making the same point through his conversations with Duncan Campbell Scott, a dead man whose spirit haunts us still.
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