November 2015, the CBC covered the installation of a new historical plaque in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery (i). The plaque stands by the grave of Duncan Campbell Scott, replacing the one erected in 2011 to honour Scott’s contributions to Canadian literature as one of the “Confederation poets”.
Scott was the Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs from 1913 – 1932 and although he didn’t invent the Residential School system, he was the driving force behind it for almost two decades, expanding the number of schools and student enrollment to the furthest extent of the system before his retirement. He was also largely responsible for the 1920 amendment to the Indian Act which made it mandatory for Aboriginal children to attend these schools, thereby hastening the process of assimilation:
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem … That has been the objective of Indian education and advancement since the earliest times … Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic…” (Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, 1920).
Whether Scott felt any remorse for his actions is unclear, although his poetry often seems to lament the loss of the noble, but ultimately ‘doomed’ “Indians”. The irony is that his romanticized portrayal of Aboriginal peoples as a “waning race” longing for salvation through acceptance into settler society no doubt helped to justify his Department’s campaign to stamp out Aboriginal Culture. Poems such as The Onondaga Madonna, The Half-Breed Girl, and The Forsaken helped secure Scott’s position as one of the Confederation poets of Canada and helped generations of Canadians overlook his role in the Residential School system. Granted, the majority of his written works had nothing to do with Indian Affairs, but when a person is publically remembered as a “Great Canadian.” Can the light of some of their work outshine the darkness of their other terrible deeds? Do other countries have plaques like these celebrating past criminals for their poetry? Does Hitler have a plaque celebrating his painting? The new plaque, although it still mentions Scott’s literary contributions, is more focused on Scott’s most significant legacy in Canadian history: perpetrating genocide.
For Scott, the only way to solve the “Indian problem” and “civilize” the Indigenous population was to remove what made them “Indian” in the first place: their languages, beliefs, lifestyles, and traditions. Children were viewed as the key to assimilation, since their young minds would be more pliable to indoctrination, and Residential Schools were the best way to achieve indoctrination since they isolated the children from their families and culture. That some of the children died while attending the schools was probably seen as a regrettable, but necessary cost of progress. A cost that Scott and the Department of Indian Affairs seemed all too ready to live with.
Much has come to light over the past few years in regards to Scott and the Residential School system, through the testimony of survivors and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The horrific acts of abuse, intentional starvation, death, murder and disappearances have created inter-generational trauma that continues to haunt the lives of survivors and non-survivors alike. But one aspect that was highlighted by the CBC’s coverage was how many people were aware of the atrocities being committed against Aboriginal children and reported what they knew in an attempt to at least improve the health and well-being of the children in the system, if not overhaul it entirely. The majority of these attempts were ignored, disregarded or discredited by Scott and the Department of Indian Affairs resulting in over three thousand children dying from preventable causes, and almost 150,000 more bearing physical and psychological scarring for the rest of their lives.
(i) “Duncan Campbell Scott plaque now includes his past creating residential schools”. CBC News. CBC/Radio-Canada. 2 November 2015. Web. 23 November 2015.