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Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott

by Mark Abley

In 2010, the top prize for Ottawa-area poets was changed from the Lampman-Scott Award back to its original name, the Archibald Lampman Award for Poetry. (The award had joined with the Duncan Campbell Scott Foundation in 2007.) Honouring Scott, one of the celebrated Confederation Poets, was too politically incendiary. From 1880 to 1932, Scott worked for the Indian Affairs Department, where much of his time was spent supervising residential schools. The schools’ purpose was to eradicate aboriginal culture, a “final solution” to what Scott described as “the Indian problem.” Scott’s name has become irrevocably linked to cultural genocide.

Should Scott’s poetry be overshadowed by his role as a racist bureaucrat? Should Thomas Jefferson be seen as a villain, rather than a hero of democracy, because he owned slaves? Should historical figures be judged according to today’s mores or those of their own time, or by some other yardstick? Montreal author Mark Abley wades into these thorny issues in his new book, which is cast as a spirited debate between Abley and Scott’s ghost, who has reappeared to try to rehabilitate his reputation. Though unforgiving of Scott’s various transgressions, Abley presents a very nuanced portrait of a man’s troubled soul.

Conversations with a Dead Man concentrates on Scott’s record at Indian Affairs. Far too little is said about his poetry, which is also part of his legacy. Instead, the author excoriates his subject at length for buying into “the conventional wisdom of the age” about the supposed inferiority of “savage” aboriginals. As Abley tells the ghost: “You succeeded at so much but you failed at bravery.”

Abley’s book does not answer all the questions he poses about flawed historical figures. Nevertheless, this disturbing page-turner is an insightful contribution to the debate. Maybe pat answers are simply impossible. Even Anita Lahey, former editor of ARC Magazine, sponsor of the Archibald Lampman Award, is uncomfortable writing Scott out of poetic history: “To forget either side of Scott’s legacy would be a dangerous act of erasure.”