Following the Canadian Heritage-Belittling Crowd – A Review of Conversations With a Dead Man – Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, written by Mark Abley


We must live by the light of our own self-satisfaction, through that secret, vital busy inwardness which is even more remarkable than our reason. Thus we must live unless we are saints, and are there any? There are spiritual beings, but there are no saints. -Iris Murdoch –the sea, the sea.

Almost every human being intentionally belittles every other one. Even the few whom we generally adore we have to belittle secretly now and then, just to feed the healthy appetites of our wondrously necessary egos. – Iris Murdoch

To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way. -Lionel Trilling – The Liberal Imagination

All members of society owe a debt of remembrance, respect and ongoing connection to their ancestors. – George Eliot

Yet they would with better grace appear as his fool than as his judge. – Iris Murdoch

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.


Mr. Mark Abley’s Wikipedia biography reveals a cultivated, sensitive man who is reasonably accomplished and successful in fields of endeavor in which, in this increasingly illiterate internet age, it is difficult to make a living: Canadian poetry and non-fiction writing. To his great credit he seems to have done so.

His book, Conversations With a Dead Man, (“Conversations”), is Mr. Abley’s summings up of the life and legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, the federal civil servant who was the top bureaucrat in the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. It is a revised and expanded version of his 2013 book of the same name and is dedicated to the “survivors and in memory of those who did not survive” Indian residential schools.

Conversations is informative and well written, using the Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol literary device of the main character (in this case Mr. Abley) being visited by a ghost, (the ghost of Mr. Scott), and, for the benefit of the reader, engaging with ghost Scott in interesting and disputatious conversations about the history of Canada’s relations with Indigenous peoples, the residential schools era, about the schools themselves and about Mr. Scott’s involvement with them.

This literary device is so well-executed that the reader has to occasionally remind himself that the words coming out of ghost Scott’s mouth are Mr. Abley’s imagined words, not the real Mr. Scott’s.

The conversations that Mr. Abley imagines, given that this is one poet/writer writing about another, constitute, up to a point, a fair and sympathetic treatment of the character of Duncan Campbell Scott, the personal challenges he faced and the professional world he inhabited.

Mr. Abley, in haiku fashion, concedes to ghost Scott that during the latter’s life he “performed his work with integrity, suffered terrible hurt in his personal life and wrote some very fine poems”.

But then the point of fairness is passed, and much snark and belittling begins.

He accuses ghost Scott for, during his life, being in charge of residential schools and:

“…making your way to the eye of the storm, the centre of a hurricane, and the hurricane did terrible damage. People are still trying to gather up the wreckage and set their lives in order. That’s why you take so much blame.”

Acting as a kind of sanctimonious Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates, he accuses ghost Scott of, during his life, being guilty of the “sin of blindness”, and of “failing at bravery and giving in to fear- your tragic flaw”.

He writes that his name now “evokes disgust” and that as a man he is seen as “a human disaster, the grey-suited avatar of a national crime.” He suggests that it is reasonable for another Canadian writer to judge him as “one of the worst Canadians of all time”.

He writes approvingly of the disrespecting of his gravesite, where a plaque has been erected saying, amongst other things, that he is “notorious” for his career in the Department of Indian Affairs as “overseer” of the residential school system which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated, “amounted to cultural genocide.”

In the opening “touting” pages of the book, where others praise it in order to encourage sales, he allows one Daniel David – “(Mohawk)…journalist, broadcaster, writer” – a person of unknown accomplishments- to self-righteously stand in judgement of and call Mr. Scott “a pitiable man- a shadow of a man”.

He allows another writer- a lawyer and a Rhodes scholar even and thus surely a man without sin, to self-righteously stand in judgement of him and declare him to be “an infamous Canadian villain”.

Most disgracefully – the ultimate ego-satiating, belittling low blow for which he should be ashamed- (all references to the Holocaust in the context of Canadian history are shameful) – Mr. Abley compares Mr. Scott to a Nazi Holocaust criminal struggling after the war to suppress his memories of his atrocious crimes.

As a matter of historical fact there was no “hurricane” and no “wreckage”. There was no Canadian genocide of any kind with memories to suppress. The history that Mr. Abley’s belittling touters rely upon, and that Mr. Abley relies upon throughout Conversationsto make these kinds of ridiculous, disproportionate, personal insults and these hyperbolic, unfounded assertions – and Conversations is filled with them – is bunk.

One of the books referred to by Mr. Abley in Conversations is Brian Titley’s 1986 biography of Mr. Scott, A Narrow Vision. The writer reviewed this book with the aim of defending Duncan Campbell Scott and debunking the bad history that writers like Mr. Abley and his touters rely upon to equate residential schools with genocide and to defame the thousands of Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who toiled in them for little material reward for over a century.

To the limited extent that a mere book review can be part of a proper history debate, in order to refute this bad history the writer incorporates that review herein and reiterates its assertions about our country’s fundamentally decent history with Indigenous peoples generally and with residential schools in particular.

For more authoritative and scholarly writings that further and completely refute the ”forced to attend-hurricane-genocide” narrative that Mr. Abley, his touters and our increasingly historically illiterate, foolishly sentimental and willfully blind elite classes have been propagating over the past 20 years, the reader is encouraged to read the writings of the journalist Michelle Stirling, Professor Hymie Rubenstein, the book Grave Error, the book From Truth Comes Reconciliation, and the cogent writings on the Indian Residential Schools Research Group website.

Immediately below are just a few of the many examples of historical bunk in Conversations that arecompletely refuted by the above writings, and by this writer’s essays at

Mr. Abley writes:

“We stole everything from them: their traditions, their languages, their economy, their self-respect. Not to mention their land.”

Canadian history did not happen this way, not even remotely.

Nothing was “stolen”. The paleolithic economies of pre-contact Indigenous peoples were voluntarily abandoned by them in favor of participating in the European, capitalist, fur trade-based economy.

The lands of what is now Canada were possessed peaceably by Euro-Canadians migrators.

Indigenous self-respect had/has been lost because of the abrupt loss of their paleolithic cultures and the creation of the reserve system – the latter, in retrospect, a huge mistake – but it can be regained if Canada again takes up the reserve-ending policies that Duncan Campbell Scott was tasked by the successive governments with implementing.

Mr. Abley writes:

“Residential schools achieved their (culture destroying) goal by forcibly denying parents and elders the care of their own children.”

Indigenous parents had to apply in writing for their children to attend a residential school. Nobody but the odd truant or orphan was “forced to attend”. No more than one-quarter of Indian children ever attended one. (So, reduce all this supposed “cultural genocide” and “intergenerational trauma” by 75%.) Indian leaders wanted the schools. They bargained for them in treaty negotiations. And when the federal government started closing them after World War Two Indian leaders petitioned to keep them open!

He writes:

“In Scott’s mind the only way Indians could mature would be to renounce their identities as Indians.”


Mr. Scott believed that to civically mature they needed to learn to read and write, get off the reserves and join modern Canadian society as civil equals with the rest of Canadians. He believed that they had the capacity to do that, which they could do and still retain their proud identity as Indigenous persons.

Indigenous writer William Wuttunee in his 1972 book Ruffled Feathers seconded Mr. Scott on this.

Mr. Abley writes in regard to Indian men who fought in World War One and who, because of that, Mr. Scott wanted them to be given the right to vote:

“The reward for proving their manhood amid bullets and poison gas would be the ability to vote in federal elections- and therefore the loss of their Indian identity.”

Writers like Mr. Abley see so much of this general issue through an illiberal lens of racial and cultural purity. Here, his bizarre suggestion that Indians who voted would in effect be diminishing the purity of their “Indianness”, (a benignly racist word used casually by the Supreme Court of Canada), is an inadvertent, backward, twisted take on the German Nuremberg laws, that prohibited Jews to vote because of their “impure” Jewishness.

He writes, using the words of a Scott poem to attempt to make his point, which poem dealt sympathetically, poignantly and in elegiac fashion with the End Days of pre-contact Indigenous culture:

“(Mr. Scott) believed his day job entailed managing the final years of a doomed people. They were smoldering. They were dying out. They were falling in the west.”


Yes, their pre-contact culture was dying, a normal phenomenon that has happened countless times in human history. (Latin, anyone?) This “dying” process began in the early 1600’s when the first French offers to Indians of copper kettles, blankets, needles and thread, metal objects and guns were enthusiastically accepted by them, and was largely complete before Duncan Campbell Scott joined the Department of Indian Affairs.

But as human beings and as members of human groups, thanks in large part to the care and conscientiousness shown by successive British and Canadian governments represented by people like Duncan Campbell Scott, they were never “doomed”. Rather, like all individuals and human groups, they and their formerly static cultures became subject to change, inexorable, constant change, an inescapable element of modernity.

And in dealing with that constant change, despite the difficulties that all of humanity has always experienced in coping with it, they have thrived, their population having risen from 150,000 in the 1880’s to 1.8 million today.

Some “doom “!  Some “falling”! Some genocide”!

The existence of the Indigenous genocide blood libel against the ancestors of non-Indigenous Canadians shows that Canada’s elite classes have abandoned Western Enlightenment, objective truth-seeking, realism-based principles and practices in favour of anti-history, careerist ideology, the latter which eschews, and in fact cannot tolerate, a full historical consciousness.

Mr. Abley and Conversations join in this careless and dangerous flight from history and reason, for example by parroting the fraudulent story of “the discoveries of the unmarked graves”, in relation to which he writes:

“No matter how many remains of lost children are unearthed, the full toll that residential schools took on Indigenous children will never be clear.”

The Kamloops mass murder-unmarked graves story was reported as truth by the Kamloops Band and by a grossly negligent media in 2021. Since then, there has been no record of any missing child. There is a suppressed ground disturbance report. There have been no excavations. There has been no police investigation, (waived off by the Band and former, wrongly sainted, TRC chair Murray Sinclair – a Canadian “colonial” government multiple-stipender), and no “remains” of even one “lost child” have been “unearthed.”

Yet Conversations, published in 2024, still flatly asserts as fact “the discoveries of unmarked graves.”

This tells the reader all he/she needs to know about the factual integrity and reliability of the entire book. It’s like a witness in a court case caught in a lie in cross-examination. His entire testimony, even the true parts, become tainted. The needed trust of the judge/reader is lost.

Conversations is filled with irreconcilable contradictions and illogicalities.

Duncan Campbell Scott naturally thought and acted in accordance with the intellectual, social, and moral ethos of his era.

Yet Mr. Abley severely criticizes him because he didn’t act in accordance with the values and practices of the present era – one hundred years later!

He quotes the famous dictum: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”, but then completely fails to apply it and afford Mr. Scott the benefit of it.

He writes that during Duncan Campbell Scott’s tenure as top bureaucrat at the Department of Indian Affairs the “conventional wisdom” of the governments he served, which was shared by “nearly all Canadians”, was that the reserves were only temporary way stations on the road to, as Mr. Scott said, the destination of “merging the natives in the citizenship of the country”. The reserves were then to be shut down, the Indian Act repealed, and the Department of Indian Affairs disbanded.

As stated, this was the universally shared “conventional wisdom” of his era. It had been the conventional wisdom since about 1830 and remained the conventional wisdom of all Canadian peoples and governments until 1970, when Indigenous leaders rejected Trudeau Senior’s White Paper proposal to phase out the reserves and repeal the Indian Act, at which point Indigenous identity politics broke out, which has blotted the Canadian landscape ever since.

Everything Duncan Campbell Scott ever did or wrote was consistent with the conventional wisdom of his time, which was natural because, like all of us are, he was a person of his time.

But Mr. Abley, his touters, and our elite classes generally, can’t forgive him for that.

His harsh and belittling attacks on this distinguished, accomplished Canadian, because in 1924 he didn’t act like a man of 2024, are completely illogical, unsupportable, mean-spirited and inexplicable.

It always bears keeping in mind that the fundamentally liberal and non-racist goal of civic equality between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – a goal conceptualized and pursued through government programs such as residential schools – was, to Canada’s enormous credit, a goal that existed at a time in world and in Canadian history when racist thinking was the norm – the “conventional wisdom”.

As Mr. Abley writes:

“Racism was stitched deep into the fabric of Western society. Men and women in Scott’s era turned to the notion of race casually, unthinkingly, as though it was a natural way of thinking about human beings.”

“Blood talk” was everywhere. As recounted by Mr. Abley, the English poet Rupert Brooke urged English Canadians to be a “morally higher race than the Indians.” Gandhi, still a South African lawyer, described Black convicts as “only a degree removed from the animal.” Charles Dickens wrote that “the savage has no moral feelings of any kind, sort or description”.

Winston Churchill wrote:

“I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.  I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

This was the “foreign country” that Duncan Campbell Scott lived in 100 years ago, and to paraphrase Lionel Trilling (above), the illusory suggestion that he should be faulted for not thinking about Indigenous matters in the angry, revisionist, racial purity-obsessed 2024 terms embraced by Mr. Abley and his ahistorical, condescending and zealously ideological contemporaries, is again ridiculous, because such a way of thinking is virtually impossible for anyone.

It is even more to Scott’s credit that he would have none of the racist claptrap that was the norm in the “foreign countries” that included Canada in the early twentieth century.

He was able to rise above that claptrap.

His poetry, his other writings, his professional work focusing on his universalist belief that Indians could “merge in the citizenship of the nation”, showed that he saw Indigenous “backwardness” as an understandable, temporary, solvable cultural problem, not a problem resulting from inherent racial differences and therefor unsolvable.

Scott’s career, private life and writings reflected his agreement with the views of the anthropologist Franz Boas, whose views were summarized by Mr. Abley as follows:

“Thanks to Boas, cultures rather than races became the main topic of anthropological study. In his most important book, The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), he showed that the mental abilities of “civilized” and “savage” people are almost identical. Aspects of history and culture, not of race, account for the remarkable social diversity of human beings. “What then is the difference between the civilization of the Old World and that of the New World?” Boas asked in an early essay. A difference in time. One reached a certain stage three thousand or four thousand years sooner than the other.” Certainly, the difference of a few thousand years is insignificant as compared to the age of the human race.” …The Mind of Primitive Man showed the folly of racial thinking.”

Duncan Campbell Scott engaged in purely cultural/deep historical thinking – thinking infused with a responsible, adult sense of tragic realism. He was not “blind”. He saw the tragic Indigenous reality too clearly, and it moved him deeply. His poetry is testament to that.

It is Mr. Abley and his ideological ilk, and the elites in Canada generally, who, tragically for Indigenous peoples, consistently engage in the willfully blind folly of racial thinking, and who belittle anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

 Mr. Abley shows awareness of “the other side” of his book’s generally angry, denunciatory, flimsy theme of stolen cultures, stolen lands and genocide- that other side represented by people supportive of the liberal, integrative goals of Duncan Campbell Scott and the successive governments he worked for- yet curiously and frustratingly Mr. Abley fails entirely to deal with their arguments.

John MacLean (aka McLean) was one such “other sider.” He was a Christian missionary, philologist and ethnologist who lived for nine years with the Blood Indians of what is now Alberta, learning their language, customs and “wonderful mythology and traditions”. In 1889 he published an erudite, empathic book about his experiences, A Distant Canadian Mirror – The Indians of Canada. His conclusion was that notwithstanding the strength and beauties of pre-contact Indigenous cultures they embodied an unworkable way to live in the increasingly settled and industrial country that Canada was becoming.

As an intellectual precursor to Franz Boas and Duncan Campbell Scott, John McLean believed that Indigenous peoples had the strength of character and the native intelligence to adapt successfully.

Yet Mr. Abley summarily dismisses this morally serious, highly educated, deeply caring man with the completely unsupported assertion that he “would not, could not, face the implications of what he had seen.”

A Distant Canadian Mirror – The Indians of Canada represented the ultimate in clear “seeing” and realistic understanding. It is unfortunate that Mr. Abley is not able to see that and learn from John McLean.

Mr. Abley demonstrates familiarity with Frances Widdowson’s and Albert Howard’s brave and realism-based Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, which he bizarrely suggests is underlined with “hardline Marxism…a Marxism that allows the authors to praise the residential schools”. (Huh?)

To his credit Mr. Abley sets outone of the central issues/questions about residential schools posed by Disrobing -an issue/question always passed over by ideologues like Mr. Abley – certainly an issue/question that was central to Canadian government Indigenous education policies for 140 years. That is:

“What would have been the result if aboriginal people were not taught to read and write, to adopt a wider human consciousness, or to develop to some degree some contemporary human knowledge and disciplines? Hunting and gathering economies are unviable in an era of industrialization, and so were it not for the educational and socialization efforts provided by the residential schools, aboriginal people would be even more marginalized and dysfunctional than they are today.”

Writing that he (again, bizarrely) finds this passage from Disrobing “distasteful,” Mr. Abley effectively turns his nose up at it and looks away, as if this key, central issue/question is not worthy of a response. He then provides what can only be described as a completely evasive, meandering non-response to it.

This intellectual copout- refusing to rationally engage- refusing to say what he thinks should have been the alternative to educating Indians- Should they have been just abandoned and left alone to their own devices? (Unconscionable! Then… what?) – constitutes a serious failure and shortcoming of Conversations.

Mr. Abley makes a casual and somewhat condescending and misleading reference to Professor Emeritus Tom Flanagan’s also brave, and seminal, book, First Nations? Second Thoughts, indicating clearly that he read it. While not mentioning Duncan Campbell Scott, the substance of Professor Flanagan’s book clearly supports the educational policies that he stood for.

Professor Flanagan wrote in the book:

“The aboriginal orthodoxy encourages aboriginal people to withdraw into themselves, into their own “First Nations”, under their own “self-governments”, on their own “traditional lands”, within their own “aboriginal economies”. Yet this is the wrong direction if the goal is widespread individual independence and prosperity for aboriginal people. Under the policy of withdrawal, the political and professional elites will do well for themselves as they manage the aboriginal enclaves, but the majority will be worse off than ever. In order to become self-supporting and get beyond the social pathologies that are ruining their communities, aboriginal people need to acquire the skills and attitudes that bring success in a liberal society, political democracy and market economy. Call it assimilation, call it integration, call it adaptation, call it whatever you want: it has to happen.” (Italics added)

Mr. Abley chose to include mention of First Nations? Second Thoughts in his narrative. Having done so he owed it more than a non-engaging drive-by mention. He owed the reader and Professor Flanagan a full engagement with First Nations? on its own terms. He needed to take Professor Flangan on! His failures in this regard constitute another intellectual copout that is regrettably too typical of Conversations.

Mr. Abley writes that he had “a long private exchange” with Mark DeWolf, co-editor with Rodney Clifton of the 2021 collection of essays defending residential schools entitled From Truth Comes Reconciliation: Assessing the Truth and Reconciliation Report. Mr. DeWolf’s father was the Principal at two residential schools and he was a (white) student at both of them. Rodney Clifton had summer work experience at a residential school and has been married for decades to a Blood Cree woman.

These conscientious, careful, distinguished gentlemen, based on both scholarship and personal experience, know what they are talking and writing about in relation to residential schools and Indigenous peoples in modern Canadian society generally.

Again, to Mr. Abley’s credit, he sets out Messrs. DeWolf’s and Clifton’s primary criticism of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, (which criticism is partly why this writer believes that Murray Sinclair is “wrongly sainted”):

“The Summary and Legacy of the Truth and Reconciliation Report do not adequately or even-handedly summarize the material found in the early (volumes of the Report). Those volumes exclude testimony that was favourable to the system, and they make a number of incendiary claims that go beyond the actual evidence the Commission collected.”

Again, having introduced this excellent book and these morally serious and intellectually honest and responsible authors/editors, Mr. Abley completely fails to engage with or refute what they wrote, showing that, unfortunately for him, he was unable to learn anything from his long exchange with Mr. De Wolf or from the solidly persuasive From Truth Comes Reconciliation.

His perfunctory attempt to deal with the book is so weak, watery and evasive, even misrepresenting the totality of Tomson Highway’s generally positive views of residential schools in the process, (as expressed in his book Permanent Astonishment), that his response in this regard has to be regarded as another intellectual copout and another serious failure and shortcoming of Conversations.

Anthropologist Diamond Jenness in his seminal work The Indians of Canadafor over four decades (1932-1973) the standard, authoritative work on the subject of Indigenous peoples, empathically described the ills, permanent changes and losses  that contact with Europeans and their culture and technology subjected Canada’s Indigenous peoples to: capitalism, alcoholism, new diseases, the destruction of their hunting and fishing grounds, (as much by Indigenous hunters as by non-Indigenous), and perpetual, long-range, inter-tribal warfare conducted for capitalistic reasons, with European weaponry, over an ever-shrinking land and food base- a tragic series of events with tragic results still today clearly in need of remedy.

Mr. Abley devotes almost two pages of his book to him, treating him mainly favourably.

Diamond Jenness shared Duncan Campbell Scott’s negative view of the reserve system. In this regard Mr. Abley writes:

“He could never regard Canada’s system of Indian reserves as natural and inevitable. A statement he delivered to a House of Commons committee in 1947, urging an end to reserves, was read into the official record under the title, “A Plan for Liquidating Canada’s Indian Problem Within 25 years.”

Conversations,contrary to all the distinguished “other siders” referred to above, clearly supports the continued existence of some form of the race-based reserve system, regardless of what new, dressy terminology, such as “nation to nation relationships” its modern proponents would choose to use for it.

Yet Mr. Abley never says what exactly he supports, except generic “Indigenous rights”, or why he supports whatever he supports.

As stated, he seems to be afraid to meaningfully engage with the facts and cogent arguments asserted by all the “other siders” listed above, as if to attempt to do so would force him to confront the truths of these few good men and women, that knows, in his “secret, busy, vital inwardness”, he just couldn’t handle, either emotionally or intellectually. This is typical of ideologues. (Yes, the movie reference is intentional.)

Duncan Campbell Scott thought that the reserve system retarded the social, political and economic growth of Indigenous peoples. He thought it crushed their spirit and potential by keeping them in a state of civic infantilism, which is the case.

Diamond Jenness agreed with Mr. Scott.

Mr. Abley completely fails to show that Messrs. Jenness and Scott were wrong on this – aside from providing a pathetic quote from former Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese to the effect that “reserves are the last thing we have”, (which ironically confirms the existence of the infantile, demoralized, dependency mentality that reserve life fosters), he doesn’t even make the effort to- which makes Mr. Abley’s snarky, belittling depiction of Mr. Scott as some kind of low Canadian villain that much more baseless and inexplicable.

 Both Brian Titley’s book and Conversations portray Duncan Campbell Scott as a driven man, with an inordinate obsession with control, self-discipline and perfectionism.

Mr. Scott had a humble small-town childhood. His father being “only” a church minister, there was little money in his family when he was growing up. His parents couldn’t afford to send him to medical school. He had a “mother problem” such that, as an adult, he was estranged from her. He got his first position at the Department of Indian Affairs at age 17 as a patronage favour Sir John A. MacDonald extended to his father.

This writer speculates that his early life left him with a permanent sense of personal and social insecurity, which in the absence of other compensating, positive factors, could have brought him down in his adult life.

To this writer it appears that there were saving, compensating positive factors in his childhood and early adult life that prevented him from being defeated as an adult: a supportive father, his fine intellect, luck, his success in school, his early start in the world of work (the busyness of which leaves little time to dwell on one’s insecurities) and his artistic talents and pursuits which led to wider social acceptance and sustaining and supportive friendships with other artists, and to marriage and fatherhood.

Yet all this is never enough to permanently quell entrenched inner doubts and fears.

 Iris Murdoch, from the sea, the sea:

“The everyday smiling face hides the inward ravages of jealousy, remorse, fear and the consciousness of irretrievable moral failure. Yet such pretences are not only consolations but may even be productive of a little ersatz courage.”

No doubt, as with so many successful people, his childhood-rooted insecurities, which can rarely leave a man, drove him – an introvert in an extrovert world – and gave him the supremely self-willed “ersatz courage” he felt he always needed in order to succeed.

His twelve-year-old daughter died. He preserved many of her toys in his music room for the rest of his life.

Mr. Abley’s astonishingly cold, insensitive and inept statement to ghost Scott in relation to this personal world-transforming tragedy, was:

“So your heart broke. And your wife’s. But I still don’t understand: after this had happened, how could you go back to Indian Affairs and oversee the residential schools?”

The human response to the death of a child – the response of a person with a deep artistic and moral imagination – would be more in the nature of George Eliot’s portrayal in Scenes of Clerical Life of the effect of such a personal catastrophe on the psyche and subsequent social functionality of the father, or in Eliot’s case the husband, devastated to the core by the tragic, untimely death of a dearly beloved:

“Many an irritating fault, many an unlovely oddity, has come of a hard sorrow, which has crushed and maimed the nature just when it was expanding into plenteous beauty; and the trivial erring life which we visit with our harsh blame, may be but as the unsteady motion of a man whose best limb is withered.”

Mr. Scott had been successfully coping for years with the withering effects of his upbringing on his psyche when his daughter died. Her death must have driven him further into himself and increased the withering and its unsteadying effects.

For Mr. Abley to fault Mr. Scott not marching into his office the Monday morning after his twelve-year-old daughter’s funeral and announcing that he was immediately refusing to further “oversee the residential schools” is incomprehensible and oblivious to the realities of human nature.

But that’s the way Mr. Abley treats Mr. Scott throughout the book: not as an imperfect, frail human being struggling to stay above his version of the fears, losses, failures, uncertainties and all the other shocks of life that all human flesh is heir to – not as a man worthy of respect, sympathy, understanding and forgiveness – but a man whose personal life and feelings must be always aligned – as in Orwell’s 1984 – with “correct “ state policies – a man that must be held to a retroactive standard of perfection, and, having failed to meet that standard according to the judgement of present-day men of much lesser accomplishment who are at least as frail and imperfect as he was, see through his ghostly eyes his name and reputation attacked and defamed, even to the point of his grave being desecrated by a plaque telling posterity that he was guilty (with no trial) of “cultural genocide”.

Conversations is a shameful, belittling attack on a decent man who did his best, all within the laws, standards, values and “wisdoms” of his time.

Conversations is a microcosm of the belittling attack that our elite classes are making against our national heritage and against our ancestors who built this country.

Conversations suggests that we are somehow superior to our ancestors and have the right to judge them.

We are not. We do not.

Our ancestors cannot be just dust to us – of no consequence. We do a terrible disservice to them, and to ourselves, when we rashly deride them and tear down their symbols, namesakes and monuments. After all, we stand on their civilizational shoulders.

They lived in far more perilous and difficult times than we do.

After we join them in Canada’s other country – the country of the dead – do we want our joint and several struggles, compromises, injustices, follies and failures- our imperfect achievements – to be as harshly belittled and condemned as we are permitting to be done to theirs?

Our society has become indifferent and untruthful to the reality and the memory of our forefathers and foremothers. We cannot let the past drop. We cannot sever our links with the dead.

We cannot let what should be a continuing, respectful communion and dialogue with our ancestors descend to mean and shallow name-calling. Because they are a part of us, and we of them, by debasing them we debase and demoralize ourselves. We owe them enormous gratitude and respect.

Failing to maintain and defend our ancestors’ memory, sacrifices, hardships, accomplishments and legacy is wrong and dishonourable.

Canadians, including Indigenous Canadians, will wake up one day and realize the truth that Duncan Campbell Scott was a great Canadian.

“Time, like the sea, unties all knots. Judgements on people are never final, they emerge from summings up which at once suggest the need for a reconsideration. Human arrangements are nothing but loose ends and hazy reckoning, whatever art may otherwise pretend in order to console us.” -Iris Murdoch, the sea, the sea.

Peter Best

May 3rd, 2024

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