The man wrongly attributed with uttering ‘kill the Indian in the child’

By Mark Abley


Conversations With A Dead Man: The Legacy Of Duncan Campbell Scott

By Mark Abley

Abley has produced something seemingly inconceivable: an intelligent, absorbing and, yes, entertaining book about an infamous Canadian villain who oversaw residential schools at the height of their brutality toward Aboriginal peoples. Abley is a poet, which makes him the perfect biographer of another poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, who happened to have had a day job for over 50 years in the Department of Indian Affairs.

Scott is commonly and wrongly attributed with uttering the goal to “kill the Indian in the child” (a phrase that belongs to an American military officer), but rightly associated with the expansion of the Indian residential school system in the 1920s and 1930s. Abley analyzes Scott’s poetry and policies, struggling with the paradox of his life: how could a poet write so empathetically about Aboriginal people and consign their children to merciless assimilation, abuse and death?

Abley tries to answer this by summoning the poet-bureaucrat’s ghost to speak for himself. The ghostly Scott has feelings, wit and a great memory for verse. This is a work of non-fiction greased with significant artistic licence. In each chapter Abley covers historical ground and pursues a dialogue with Scott about it. They banter, argue and scold.

At first the reader will find this preposterous. As the pages turn, however, what seemed like a cheap narrative ploy becomes a serious method to understand Scott on his own terms. Scott gets a real chance to explain how someone well-meaning could order the destruction of Aboriginal families and culture. For Scott, the schools were about extending Canadian citizenship, not colonialism.

Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” A tempting view, but Abley resists the urge to discard Scott as a racist imbecile. The villain was a man, and his nation is our nation. Abley’s act of radical empathy makes it harder to turn the page on a chapter of our history we might otherwise slam shut.

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The man wrongly attributed with uttering ‘kill the Indian in the child’

  1. “Deputy minister of Indian Affairs Duncan Campbell Scott: “I want to get rid
    of the Indian problem … Our object is to continue until there is not a
    single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body
    politics and there is no Indian question, and no Indian

    There is nothing “romantic” about how this demon of a man demoralized a race of people. It absolutely eclipses any of his creative pursuits and makes me ashamed of Canada, of the foundation that this country was built upon. Why would anyone want to resist “that urge to discard Scott as a racist imbecile” sit and banter with a man like this… Might as well sit down and enjoy a good long cuppa with Hitler!

    • There has been far too much demonizing. Show me one place in the world where two groups with a long and tragic relationship have come together and made a better society when they were still calling each other “demons.” Yes, Scott’s policies, based on his belief that the only way to protect indigenous people was to bring them into the “civilized” world, were misguided and, in many cases, harmful. Are we positive we’re doing any better in the way we seek to help starving people in the Sudan or mentally-challenged people in Canada?

  2. What an interesting book this appears to be! It’s great to see a serious examination of the man and his policies instead of the two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) pictures of him drawn by those who are looking for an identifiable villain. Scott was part of a society and a political and bureaucratic system, and until we perfect our own society and governing systems, we shouldn’t be so quick to judge the man — especially if all we’ve ever learned about him is the oft-quoted statements like the ones well-meaning supporters of First Nations issues are fond of trotting out.

  3. The term “Final Solution” was not coined by the Nazis, but by Indian Affairs superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott:
    “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the Final Solution of our Indian Problem.” – Duncan Campbell Scott – 1910. Dept of Indian Affairs. Ottawa, Canada.
    Scott was describing planned murder when he came up with the expression, since he first used it in response to a concern raised by a west coast Indian Agent about the high level of deaths in the coastal residential schools.

  4. I see a person serving evil, and bearing much responsibility for the suffering and deaths of tens of thousands of First Nations children and also the suffering of their families when their children were taken under threat of imprisonment by the people of european descent. duncan campbell scott of Indian Affairs in ottawa, proud to follow canada’s policy of genocide on the indigenous people of MikanacOMinising…

  5. john a mcdonald, an immigrant from scotland, was a terrible, terrible person responsible for the deaths and suffering of unknown hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples of this land. Hell of a thing to leave your own country to go to somebody else’s and start trying to kill them all off. Even worse, his genocidal policies still stand right now RE canada’s abominable indian act. And stephen harper’s omnibus bills continue the practice and are what touched off the IdleNoMore movement last Nov 2012. Canadians and First
    Nations must reconcile, but Canadians refuse to look at what has led to this current fractured relationship. We cannot move forward until there is acknowledgement of what has happened and respect for Nation-To-Nation agreements. “Get over it”, Canadians say. Well, there was a holocaust here, denied by Canadians today, and residual inter-generational damage remains, and “lest we forget” I say…

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