Nonfiction Review by Lynne Van Luven

Mark Abley, Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2014). Hardbound, 256 pp., $32.95.

A writer who begins a biography with an apparition is either supremely arrogant or Conversations With a Dead Manslightly wacky, I thought to myself as I read the first three pages of Conversations with a Dead Man. Now that I’ve finished the book, I can confidently state that Mark Abley is neither. Audacious, I think, is a better word to describe the author of this questing rumination upon poetry, public policy, history, and racism in Canada. Taken all together, Abley’s investigations are a keen review of the vagaries of reputation, and how it can be won and lost. A former Rhodes Scholar and now a columnist for the Montreal Gazette, Abley has long concerned himself with Canada’s past, present, and future. His books include Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies (1986) and The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English (2008). He is an accomplished, playful writer and not the least bit naïve about Canadian history, though it suits him to adopt a certain innocence in Conversations with a Dead Man.

Thirty or forty years ago, poetry by Duncan Campbell Scott (1862–1947) was a staple in many high school English classes. Along with Archibald Lampman and Bliss Carman, he was known as one of “the Confederation poets.” Today, it’s likely only dedicated Canadianists know who Scott was, never mind recite any of his poetry. But Scott’s name does echo with many who have followed the scandal of abuse at Canada’s residential schools. He is remembered for policies implemented during his fifty-two years as a federal civil servant with Indian Affairs, during which time thousands of Indigenous students across Canada were beaten, sexually assaulted, starved, and shamed in the church schools allegedly educating them. For the last nineteen years of his service, Scott was deputy minister, the man who reported to the House of Commons, the man who envisioned “assimilation” as the answer to what he saw as “the Indian Question.” In 1920, he told a Commons committee: “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.”

Scott’s spirit shows up in Abley’s living room on a January morning, and for eight visits thereafter, because he requires “the help of an author capable of refuting the lies that I understand are now attached to my name.”  Apparently, news has travelled to the afterworld about his record, and he tells Abley, “My name is mud,” as he pleads his case to be more carefully assessed by someone whose mind is not “tainted.” Abley’s reaction: “It sounded like a well-prepared speech. There was, I was beginning to realize, a certain desperation behind the formality of his words, a look of supplication in his steely gaze. He was a man—a ghost—on a quest.”

And so begin the conversations, augmented by Abley’s considerable research, that form the backbone of this biography, one which will infuriate hard-line historians who refute any of the furbelows of “creative nonfiction” as a vehicle to either fact or truth. Let me be frank: the device Abley employs—unexpected visits by Scott’s ghost, arguments with his visitor fuelled by his own research, and instructions to pursue specific additional avenues of history—is one a reader either accepts or rejects. If you chose to accept it, as I did, then you are required to allow your mind to consider both sides of the argument; Scott consistently pleads extenuating circumstances, while Abley challenges the revenant about attitudes held, investigations uninitiated, stands untaken.

So, how should today’s reader judge Duncan Campbell Scott?  As an outdated Romantic poet? As a steely-eyed bureaucrat who put efficiency over humanity when it came to assessing the schools under his purview? Or as someone marooned in a horribly racist era, in which Indian Affairs, along with most Canadians, viewed First Nations people as “savages,” as “child-like” and thus subject to the “superior white race”?  Abley takes it upon himself to update and educate Scott, to tell him that Canada has progressed to the point where a woman of Chinese-Canadian heritage has become Governor General in Ottawa, where a Sto:lo man has served as Lieutenant Governor in Victoria, and where many lawyers, doctors, teachers, and scientists are of Indigenous descent. In short, “The Indian” has not become extinct at all but has excelled despite continued racism and social inequality. The genius of Abley’s approach is simple: in educating Duncan Campbell Scott, he is re-educating his reader. He tells Scott that while Archibald Lampman and Pauline Johnson are “sinking towards oblivion,” Scott lives on because “a lot of Aboriginal people still recognize your name. They know exactly who you are.” And, says Abley, Canada’s 1.4 million Indigenous people are dealing with the residential schools legacy in their own way. “But I can’t turn away. As an educated White Canadian, I need to face it too.”

In his last visitation Scott looks particularly frail, and asks Abley, “If I was often guilty of the sin of blindness, can you grant me forgiveness?” Each reader will have to come to his or her own answer to that crucial question. Abley replies, but I won’t spoil the ending by revealing how. I can tell you my answer is “no.” I can understand all that shaped Duncan Campbell Scott, and I can imagine myself into the era in which he lived. But I cannot forgive him for allowing innocent children to be treated as if they were not human.

—Lynne Van Luven

As in The Malahat Review, 189, Winter 2014, 105-107