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The Tragedy of Duncan Campbell Scott

In 1862, Isabella Campbell MacCallum, often better known as the wife of Reverend William Campbell Scott, gave birth to a baby boy. Since she was an Onondaga woman from Kahnawake, she gave him an Onondaga name: Dehawennontye "Floating Voice" or "Words Flying in Both Directions." The new baby's father gave him a different name: Duncan Campbell Scott.

Outside of Canada, Duncan Campbell Scott is best known as a middling poet and short story writer (in canada often as a 'confederation poet'), whose strangely contradictory works still inspire papers and lengthy debates. On one hand, many critics praise his poetry as deeply evocative, filled with praise for canada's supposedly "untamed wilderness" and the "noble savage." That these are both constructed images with only the most tenuous connection to reality hasn't stopped anyone on this point. On the other, many poems in which an Indigenous character figures have a distinctly sinister tone, and in fact, so does "untamed nature." Accordingly, some critics argue that Scott's depiction of Indigenous culture was sympathetic, even positive, while others strongly disagree. The disagreement is far from academic.

Photograph of Duncan Cambell Scott, courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, PA-135698/Dupras and Colas. Photograph of Duncan Cambell Scott, courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, PA-135698/Dupras and Colas.

Reverend Scott was an influential wesleyan methodist missionary and good friends with prime minister John A. MacDonald. Popularly described as canada's "first prime minister," serving from 1867-1874 and 1878-1891, and for nearly ten years of the latter period he made himself superintendant-general of "indian affairs." In due time, reverend Scott used his political connections to land his son Duncan a job with good long term prospects and the potential to exert great influence over a "heathen" population whom he felt strongly needed to be "saved" from their own religion and culture. In 1879, Duncan Campbell Scott became a civil servant in the federal department of indian affairs, placing him firmly under the influence of MacDonald during the second period of his federal career. He may or may not have seen this as matching his particular talents. Scott demonstrated great musical ability early in his life, and over his civil service career developed his literary reputation.

The department of indian affairs in all its many incarnations since the 18th century has employed many Indigenous people, especially as interpreters and guides. Unlike Indigenous employees, Scott apparently never considered himself Indigenous, and never associated himself with an Indigenous identity or state of being. He had no active connections to any Indigenous community as a contributing member whatsoever. These points are well worth reading twice. Dubious claims to an Indigenous identity or membership of a hopefully obscure Indigenous community who won't challenge the claim by successful authors is very much a late 20th - early 21st century phenomenon. If Scott counted an Indigenous person or persons among his respected friends, I haven't found anything that mentions the fact.

Scott entered the department of indian affairs not long after an important change in the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous nations. Indigenous nations had ceased to be valued as military allies as soon as it became clear that the War of 1812 was not likely to be repeated in the near future. By the late 19th century, canadians generally believed that Indigenous peoples and their cultures were doomed to extinction, based on their observations of ongoing epidemics and the federal government's systematic removal of Indigenous people from such visible places as cities and larger towns. Duncan Campbell Scott subscribed wholeheartedly to this belief. Not only did he subscribe to it, at least in terms of action, he was determined to make the extinction happen. When he eventually became deputy superintendent of the department of indian affairs in 1913, he set about the task of meeting two goals: "...to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada who has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department," and to cut costs. This quote from Scott's 1920 testimony before a parliamentary committee is justly infamous.

From 1913 to 1932, he oversaw the establishment of a more extensive residential school system, and the kidnapping of children from their families to attend them. He saw to it that laws making Indigenous spiritual practices illegal were enforced, nearly destroying the Sun Dance on the plains and completely disrupting the Feasting systems on the northwest coast. He supervised the confiscation and sale of regalia, adding to his personal household collection in the process. Scott made it illegal for First Nations members or First Nations as a whole to retain lawyers in order to pursue land claims, and ordered the destruction of the traditional Haudenosaunee long house government, including the burning of all of that body's papers and the destruction of its regalia. Among his budget cuts was the severe scaling back of medical workers, contributing directly to Indigenous death tolls from flu and tuberculosis. He did not spare the residential schools in his cost-cutting, contributing directly to student malnutrition and death by starvation and disease.

Like anyone engaged in such clearly destructive work, Scott had many rationalizations to call upon, especially from his religion. As a devout member of an evangelistic methodist sect, he could look to the writings and speeches of authorities like his father, which would assure him that all Indigenous practices amounted to devil worship, and nothing but the most strict and swift measures would save their hapless practitioners from eternal damnation. Furthermore, such sources all insisted that not forcing assimilation on any assimilable "Indians" was a crime. In the original version of this article, I wrote: "It isn't clear what he actually knew about the social and cultural effects of his policies." More recent research and new publications, including Accounting for Genocide: Canada's Bureaucratic Asault on Aboriginal People by Dean Neu and Richard Therrien and the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada make it emphatically clear that this is not true. Scott was well aware of the effects of his policies, because he demanded, and got, regular reports from indian agents and adjunct staff that told him all about it. He often became annoyed with hearing repeatedly how terrible conditions were in the residential schools and on reserves, ordering his staff to stop repeating such depressing stuff and insisting that funds were simply not available. His responses are quite familiar sounding.

In the course of his 1920 testimony, Scott made a point of decrying the apparent support for "people who could stand on their own" by an entire federal department, and no doubt this also served as a useful rationalization for his policies and went over well with his superiors. His future successor Jean Chretien and a later prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, would paraphrase the same complaint. The disingenuousness of it is no longer so easy to elide today, as Indigenous activists lay out all the many ways the indian act is designed to actively prevent them from "standing on their own." Today, just as in Scott's time, Indigenous people have practical ideas for replacing this racist legislation with something non-genocidal and more effective for the purpose of helping Indigenous communities as they re-establish themselves on a more healthy footing. They have also repeatedly pointed out that the band councils created by the indian act are beholden not to their communities but to the federal government, so they are hardly democratic or a democratic replacement for Indigenous systems of governance.

Whatever else may have been happening in his professional life, it is clear that his own heritage, both Indigenous and religious, began to haunt Duncan Campbell Scott. Two of Scott's poems are especially famous. One of them is 'Powassan's Drum,' written shortly after the police raid on the Haudenosaunee long house government, in which the steady drumbeats of an angry medicine man set the pace of the meter. Indigenous drumming made Scott deeply uncomfortable, a discomfort drilled into him by his father based on the tenets of methodism. Eventually this discomfort led him to stop playing the only percussion instrument he had ever used, his well-loved grand piano. The other poem was written nearly a quarter century earlier than 'Powassan's Drum.' It's name?

'The Onondaga Madonna.'


  1. The majority of the biographical information in this article not pertaining to Scott's infamous career as genocidal overseer of the canadian "indian department" is drawn from E. Brian Titley's A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada (UBC Press: Vancouver, 1986). I am inclined to trust this source over the various online encyclopedias that repeat details in an eerie circle that starts at wikipedia. For many years scholars avoided talking about Scott's entire career spent in the department of indian affairs courtesy of a patronage appointment provided by his father's friend John A. MacDonald, whose own genocidal record is now (2017) a matter of sharp debate.

    There are few other book length studies of Scott that date after 1980. Patricia A. Welage's 1981 MA thesis, "The Divided Worlds of Duncan Campbell Scott" is one. The latest I can find is Stan Dragland's Floating Voice: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Literature of Treaty Nine, from 1994 (Anansi: Concord(ON)).

  2. I had no idea that Isabella Campbell MacCallum's origins were themselves rather contested. I have found a few different historians who based on a brief paper by E.K. Brown are certain her parents were "Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, emigrant settlers from Killin in Perthshire." See the post at activehistory.ca Rev. William Scott and the Oka Question for the post I just quoted from. The author of the post, Donald B. Smith, notes the following citation for E.K. Brown's paper, "Duncan Campbell Scott: A Memoir," Responses and Evaluations. Essays on Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977). The author was Edward Killoran Brown, and his papers are held at the university of chicago. I am not sure why Smith considers Brown's 1977 essay as more accurate than more recent historical research.
  3. Full disclosure, I have absolutely no sympathy with the views of those who disagree. In this instance, there are important parallels between racist depictions of Indigenous people and sexist depictions of women, and of course, Scott produced both and sexist, racist depictions of Indigenous women.
  4. Methodism is a protestant denomination founded in the eighteenth century by Charles and John Wesley, who wanted to reform the anglican church. According to the online version of the encylopaedia brittanica and my OED, the "method" aspect of this denomination refers to systematic study of the christian bible.
  5. Popularly, because as Timothy J. Stanley points out, canada had no prime ministers until after 1931, when it officially ceased to be a colony of britain under the statute of westminster. Lyon Mackenzie King was the first prime minister of canada.
  6. Fernwood Publishers: Blackpoint, 2003.
  7. The eerie bracketing in Scott's life created by these two poems and the suggestion that the contradictions of his own heritage began to get to him didn't only strike me back in 2003 when I originally wrote this article. David T. McNab takes up some of the same themes but with a different and arguably more sympathetic spin, in his 2004 paper "'A Lurid Dash of Colour': Powassan's Drum and Canada's Mission, the Reverend William and Duncan Campbell Scott," pages 258-271 in Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes, edited by Jill Oakes, Rick Riewe, Yale Belanger, Sharon Blady, Kelly Legge, and Patsy Wiebe. This book is a volume in the Aboriginal Issues Press Series published by Aboriginal Issues Press out of Winnipeg.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Monday, January 02, 2023 00:54:17