Knowledge Without Feeling: Lessons from Duncan Campbell Scott

Reflection by Mark Abley, 26 January 2014 - Audio available

This morning I’m going to talk about a figure from Canadian history. By looking at his life and work, I believe we can make a few connections to our own time, to the issues we face today. But before I get to the present, let me take you back into the past.

The man’s name was Duncan Campbell Scott. He spent most of his life in Ottawa, which was just a lumber town with pretensions and wooden sidewalks when he was born there in 1862. His father was a Methodist minister. As a child, Duncan spent several years living in small towns in Ontario and the Eastern Townships. He was a solitary boy, gifted at music. If his parents had had more money, he would have studied medicine at McGill, where an uncle was the first-ever professor of obstetrics and gynecology. Instead he entered the civil service in Ottawa at the age of seventeen. He remained there, working in the same federal department, for the next 52 years, rising smoothly through the ranks to become a deputy minister.

Yet Duncan Campbell Scott saw himself, first and foremost, not as a civil servant but as a writer – it was as if he kept different parts of himself in separate compartments. In terms of his artistic abilities, he was a good short-story writer and a very fine poet. He was especially adept at evoking the natural world in words – he loved going on canoe trips to the Gatineau and the Lower St. Lawrence, and what he saw and heard on those trips often made its way into poetry.

The more I read about him over the past few years, the more things I found that we shared. He was very fond of cats, for instance. He was quite shy. He worked hard and long to build up the arts in Canada. And although he abandoned the traditional Christianity of his parents, he retained a deep faith in what he called “the unperverted earth-spirit lying at the core of all life.” When he got married, to a violinist from the Boston area, the wedding ceremony was a Unitarian one. I discovered recently that in Scott’s later years he was a friend of Norman Dowd, the minister of the Ottawa Unitarian Association and later the executive director of the Canadian Congress of Labour.

I’m sketching a picture, in short, of a man whom many of us in this congregation today, if we’d been a few generations older, would have been proud to know. Duncan Campbell Scott was a patriot, a loyal friend, a loving father. When he died in 1947, he was among the most respected of all Canadians – one of the tributes to him carried the headline “Great Poet, Great Man.” The following year a memorial service was held for him in one of central London’s most beautiful churches, with the British poet laureate giving a eulogy.

None of this is what Duncan Campbell Scott is known for today. He’s remembered, if at all, as a shameful figure. His reputation lies in ruins. He has been publicly named as one of the worst Canadians of all time. Indeed he stands accused of cultural genocide.

The reason lies not in his poetry or his personal life, but in the work he did for the federal government. The department he served for so many decades was Indian Affairs. Having started as a junior copy clerk, he became the department’s chief accountant while still a young man. Then he was given full responsibility for Indian education. And in 1913, he was appointed deputy minister. Indian Affairs was not a topic that provoked much political debate back then, and the politicians mostly let civil servants run the show. So Scott was a figure of tremendous power. For an entire generation, the lives of the Aboriginal people of Canada were in his hands.

That may seem like an overstatement. It’s not. Only in 1960, long after Scott’s death, were Aboriginal people allowed to vote in federal elections. In Scott’s day they were officially wards of the state – in other words, they had the status of dependent children. The government decided what they could and could not do, often in conjunction with the mainline churches. So, for example, Scott enforced a law that made it illegal for the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot to perform the sun dance ritual. He enforced a law that previous deputy ministers had tended to ignore, one that criminalized the potlatch practised by many Aboriginal peoples on the west coast. This was the spiritual, economic and artistic basis of their culture, and Scott made sure that hundreds of people went to jail for practising it. The Six Nations reserve in southern Ontario, the most populous in all of Canada, had functioned under a traditional, matriarchal form of government ever since the Iroquois arrived there with the Loyalists in the late 18th century. Scott abolished it. Understandably, many of the Iroquois were not happy about this. So Scott wrote a new law, making it impossible for any Indian band to choose its own lawyers – the only lawyers they could hire would be ones approved by the Department of Indian Affairs.

Worst of all, he entrenched and expanded the network of residential schools. I’m sure many of you are painfully familiar with the terrible abuses that were perpetrated at many of these schools – the sexual abuse by priests and ministers, the physical beatings, and so on. It’s crucial to realize is even if this abuse is what has lately made the schools notorious in the public mind, it was not the only thing wrong with the schools. I would argue that by their very nature, they were inherently abusive.

The system required taking children of six, five, even four years old, away from their families and homes, leaving entire communities without children. Think about that for a moment. When the children arrived at a residential school, they were forbidden to speak their own language, and punished if they did so. Their own clothes were stripped off, and they covered their bodies in a drab uniform. They were given a number. They were known by that number. They were indoctrinated with a religion that insisted their own parents and grandparents would burn in the fires of hell. In most schools the food was meagre, the heating inadequate, the ventilation non-existent. Even if they weren’t physically or sexually attacked, most of the children were desperately lonely and bewildered. Having been forcibly separated from their parents and grandparents, they never learned how to be parents themselves. This system reached its maximum in the last few years of Duncan Campbell Scott’s tenure at Indian Affairs, but its origins go back to the mid-19th century and the last school remained open as late as 1996. Our country is living now with the consequences.

This was the system Duncan Campbell Scott oversaw. He was a very efficient administrator, good at saving taxpayers’ money. But there’s something else. I mentioned his poems about the natural world. I didn’t mention that he also wrote a significant number of poems about Aboriginal people. And many of these poems show both insight and sympathy. In “At Gull Lake: August, 1810,” a poem set in the sandhills of southwestern Saskatchewan, an Aboriginal woman named Keejigo is betrayed by her lover, a Scottish fur-trader. Scott writes:

    Quiet were all the leaves of the poplars,
    Breathless the air under their shadow,
    As Keejigo spoke of these things to her heart
    In the beautiful speech of the Saulteaux.

Here Scott called an Aboriginal language beautiful. Very unusual for his time. Another poem, “Indian Place Names,” is a celebration of Aboriginal words. A long narrative poem, “On the Way to the Mission,” describes the murder of an Aboriginal man in the snowy forests by what Scott calls “two whitemen servants of greed.” And his poem “The Forsaken” evokes the incredible courage of a young Ojibway mother who cuts off a piece of her own flesh in a winter storm to serve as trout bait, thereby providing food to keep her young son alive.

So what was going on? How could the same man whose writings honoured Aboriginal people and showed empathy with their difficult plight also be in charge of an oppressive system that had such miserable results? I don’t think for a moment that Scott was a monster or a hypocrite. In many ways he was a decent, even an admirable man. So how could he be responsible for the residential schools?

There are many answers to that question, and I’ll be happy to explore them in more depth in the discussion after this service. For the moment, let me quickly sketch what I’ve come to see as the most important reasons. Then I’ll end this reflection by concentrating on two reasons in particular, and by discussing the implications for us today.

As a writer, Scott set a number of poems and stories in the early or mid-19th century, and what they describe is the harsh conflict between European traders and Aboriginals. His imaginative writings seldom mention the indigenous people of his own time, but he was glad to express sympathy for indigenous people in the past. In these poems and stories, Aboriginals often die. The sense of doom that pervades his literary work is in line with what most white people in Scott’s day and age believed: that Indians were a dying race. In Ottawa, in Montreal, in Toronto, in Vancouver, nearly everybody assumed that Aboriginal cultures, beliefs, traditions and languages would inevitably disappear – as would the people who had created them. After all, there were no antibiotics or other effective medicines against tuberculosis, which was ravaging Aboriginal communities from coast to coast to coast.

The prevailing belief, in short, was that the weak would die and only the strong would survive. Scott’s career took place in the heyday and the shadow of Social Darwinism, when most Canadians took for granted the superiority of Western civilization. One quick anecdote about that – in 1913 the British poet Rupert Brooke travelled across Canada. He stayed a week in Ottawa with Scott and his wife, then took the train west. And when he reached my old hometown of Saskatoon, he met an American businessman. The businessman said to him: “We must be a morally higher race than the Indians, because we have survived them. The great Darwin has proved it.” It was an age that believed in progress. Railways were a sign of progress. Residential schools were a sign of progress. Suppressing the potlatch and sun dance, and destroying the matriarchal system of Iroquois government, were signs of progress. Incidentally the businessmen of British Columbia were not the ones pushing Scott to abolish the potlatch. Because potlatches were seen as encouraging promiscuity and alcoholism, the abolitionists were mostly missionaries and social reformers on the political left.  

Scott saw the Department of Indian Affairs as having a job, a mission, to protect Aboriginal people from what he called “low white men” and to bring them gradually into Canada’s mainstream. He was not an outright racist – others in the period used racially charged language to put down Aboriginal people. Scott rarely did this. The greatest compliment he could pay them was to say that some Indians were now fully equipped to enter Canadian society and play their part in the British Empire. Survival meant assimilation. There was no alternative. There was no other choice. Or so he believed.

That’s a quick and very superficial sketch of what lay behind Scott’s work as a civil servant. Let me focus now on two items in particular.

The first involves what he actually knew about life and death in the residential schools. Initially, when I was doing my research, I hoped to discover that he was isolated in his big office on Parliament Hill, and that if only he’d known about the dire conditions in which Aboriginal children lived, he would have insisted on change. Not so. It’s clear from the hundreds of complaints and reports that landed on his desk that he was aware of the terrible quality of buildings, the scanty food, the physical abuse, the diseases and so on. At one point he admitted that more than half the children who attended residential school did not live to enjoy what he called “its benefits” – but, he said, that was no reason to alter the government’s policies. 

How could he do this? The reason, I suggest, is that he never allowed himself to feel what he knew. When he walked into the office, he shut off his emotions. He was intellectually convinced that assimilation was necessary and desirable; therefore whatever injuries the policy caused must be trivial compared to the larger goal. The phrase “collateral damage” hadn’t been invented in his day, but I think it applies to his behaviour: for him the thousands of Aboriginal children who died, the tens of thousands of families who were wounded, were merely collateral damage. What mattered was the department’s mission, the ultimate goal. In his poetry Scott allowed himself to feel. As a deputy minister, he couldn’t let himself feel a thing.

This is, if you like, the dark underbelly of idealism. And in a way, Scott was an idealist – he didn’t set out to feather his own pocket, he set out to serve his country and to help build a modern Canada. Trouble is, when idealists attain power, the side-effects can sometimes be brutal.

I wonder too if globalization and computer technology are threatening to turn us all into Duncan Campbell Scott. How do we live with the knowledge that now surrounds us? Thanks to the Internet, a huge amount of information about what’s really going on in the world is available to us all. But if we allowed ourselves to feel the full pain of poverty and intolerance and racism and environmental destruction and climate change, we’d go mad. The only way most of us can cope is to ignore much of what we know. Ignorance is bliss. Or rather, ignorance threatens to become a psychological necessity. Duncan Campbell Scott, c’est moi.  

The second lesson I’d like to draw from Scott’s life is less personal and more political. When Aboriginal people sent delegations to Ottawa, Scott preferred to avoid meeting them. He couldn’t see the point. He didn’t think it would be worth his while to listen, because they would probably disagree with him, and they would do so at great length. Scott was a busy man and he didn’t like to waste time. He was sure that he was right, and that the government knew best. He was certain that the traditions of Aboriginal people were outmoded, their spiritual beliefs wrong, their cultures unfit for the contemporary world. He was convinced that modern Canadian society was far superior to theirs, and that his nation would march into the future on the basis not of diversity but of compulsory unity.

That kind of arrogance is not confined to Scott’s era. We live in a province whose current rulers also mistrust diversity and believe in compulsory unity. They too are convinced that the spiritual traditions of minorities are outmoded, their cultures unfit for modern Quebec. Writing in the New York Times this month, a Quebec cabinet minister, Jean-François Lisée, declared that “Quebec’s approach to the separation of church and state is thus rigorous, progressive and modern.” Duncan Campbell Scott believed in modernity and progress too. Scott described the potlatch as “this abominable and wasteful aboriginal custom;” Pauline Marois defines the hijab as “a form of submission.” A temptation of people who enjoy power is to assume they have nothing to learn from hearing other voices; after all, they’re the enlightened ones. They know best. Lisée and Marois are scornful of multiculturalism. I’m sure Scott would have agreed.

In his final years, having retired at last from government service, Scott travelled widely. But he was always a poor sleeper, subject to nightmares. When I imagine him now, I think of some lines by the British writer James Fenton in his poem “A German Requiem”, a study of amnesia in post-Nazi society:

    It is not your memories which haunt you.
    It is not what you have written down.
    It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
    What you must go on forgetting all your life.

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