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|Written by Daniel Polgar|
|Wednesday, 10 November 2010 00:00|
Duncan Campbell Scott has often been named as one of Canada's greatest ever poets, and the one who most ably linked the romantic with the modern stream in Canadian letters. He was also a paragon of the most banal, bureaucratic sort of evil, of the sort one usually only sees in absurdist, dystopian works of fiction.
Scott was born in Ottawa in 1862, and initially intended to study medicine. His family ran out of money, though, and he was forced to find work in 1879, as a clerk in the federal Department of Indian Affairs. He was to stay there for the rest of his career, over half a century.
Always artistically gifted, Scott also contemplated for a while in his youth the possibility of becoming a professional concert pianist; but after meeting the poet Archibald Lampman in 1883, he was convinced to turn his attentions to writing.
Scott and Lampman formed their own, miniature literary salon in the otherwise artistically sterile town of Ottawa. Scott taught Lampman to paddle a canoe, and they would often go on excursions, together or individually, into the lakes, rivers and forests around the Ottawa River. Both would eventually become most famous for their poetic evocations of Canada's natural beauty.
One of Scott's early poems, "Ottawa: Before Dawn," illustrates his facility in depicting, clearly and cleanly, and without pretension or strain, the visual, aural, tactile, and emotional textures of a morning along the river:
The stars are stars of morn; a keen wind wakes
The birches on the slope; the distant hills
Rise in the vacant North; the Chaudiere fills
The calm with its hushed roar; the river takes
An unquiet rest, and a bird stirs, and shakes
The morn with music; a snatch of singing thrills
From the river; and the air clings and chills.
Scott also tried his hand at short stories, but found that poetry was the easiest form to manage while also holding down a full-time job. He maintained his other artistic interests, however: he was involved in the theatre - was an early supporter of the Ottawa Little Theatre; he was friends with painters such as Homer Watson and Lawren Harris; and in the 1890s he contributed regularly, in collaboration with Lampman and Wilfred Campbell, a series of books-themed articles to the Toronto Globe newspaper, under the title At the Mermaid Inn.
Scott's private life was full, and at times turbulent. In 1894, he married Belle Botsford, a concert violinist he had accompanied on the piano at a recital. They had one daughter, Elizabeth, who died at the age of 12. Belle also suffered frequently from ill health, and died in 1929. Scott re-married two years later, to an aspiring poet, Elsie Aylen.
Scott lived long enough - from 1862 to 1947 - to see Canada from its founding as an experimental offshoot of the British Commonwealth into the more settled middle decades following the Depression and the two world wars. He witnessed the development of the country both as an artist, sensitive to the changes around him, and as an employee of the government, enabling and encouraging those same changes. In enacting these dual roles, he encapsulated a great contradiction: he is both one of the primary voices of Canada's artistic awakening, and also a great destroyer of much that was valuable in Aboriginal culture before it was wiped away by assimilationist policies - his assimilationist policies.
From 1913 to 1932, Scott was the Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, its highest-ranking non-elected official. In this capacity, he was the primary advocate for the Residential Schools program, which removed Aboriginal children from their families and communities and placed them in repressive church-run institutions where they were generally forbidden to speak their native languages and engage in traditional practices. Physical and verbal abuse were rampant.
In recent years, as the crimes and injustices that were perpetrated in the Residential Schools have increasingly been exposed and discussed, some lines that Scott wrote in a letter to a fellow public servant in the 1920s have become more well-known than any poem he ever wrote:
I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… 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 no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.
As a result of these policies, Scott was deemed in 2007 by Beaver magazine to be one of the "Worst Canadians Ever." After reading the above passage, it is difficult to disagree with that assessment, no matter how benevolent Scott may in fact have been in formulating his cultural ideas.
Scott's failure, as both a poet and an administrator - and it is all the more shocking and egregious because he was a poet - was a failure of imagination. He was incapable of seeing native people as anything more than a symbol. In many regards, it was a positive symbol - of nobility, purity, courage, and strength - but a symbol nevertheless. And a symbol, no matter how artistically useful, has less value than a human being.
One of Scott's best-known works is "The Onondaga Madonna." In it, one can see, in all its tragic irony, Scott's romanticized vision of the noble but ultimately doomed native.
She stands full-throated and with careless pose,
This woman of a weird and waning race,
The tragic savage lurking in her face,
Where all her pagan passion burns and glows;
Her blood is mingled with her ancient foes,
And thrills with war and wildness in her veins;
Her rebel lips are dabbled with the stains
Of feuds and forays and her father's woes.
And closer in the shawl about her breast,
The latest promise of her nation's doom,
Paler than she her baby clings and lies,
The primal warrior gleaming from his eyes;
He sulks, and burdened with his infant gloom,
He draws his heavy brows and will not rest.
It is for writing like this that Duncan Campbell Scott deserves to be remembered - not as a great poet, though, but as a cautionary tale, against those who can express with perfect beauty the most imperfect of ideas.