Scott and Indian Affairs

E. Brian Titley.  A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada.  Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1986. 246 pages. $24.95

Narrated by the Methodist missionary John MacDougall, the third section of Rudy Wiebe’s The Temptations of Big Bear contains in little the whole action of the novel.  The narration is retrospective, that is.  Its focus is MacDougall’s own experience in the mid-1870s, but it touches briefly the matter of the novel’s dramatic climax in the 1882 rebellion.  MacDougall’s account is self-contained and shaped like a short story, then, and its core is a question that is raised and left unanswered  except by the whole story:  what was the word MacDougall spoke to Sweetgrass about the treaty?  Should the Cree sign?  The word must have been yes.  And MacDougall’s unwavering confidence in the rightness of his word, even in retrospect, must partly have sprung from an unsentimental conviction that the clock could not be turned back to pre-“progress” times.

     In most ways, A Narrow Vision is completely unlike anything in Big Bear, including MacDougall’s story, though both books clarify the effect on Indians of their dealings with Whites.  But I kept thinking of MacDougall’s certainty while I read Brian Titley’s book about Duncan Campbell Scott’s career in the Department of Indian Affairs.  According to Titley, Scott too believed he was right, from beginning to end of his long career, though he was not like MacDougall organizing God’s empire and it would have been difficult to claim divine support for civil service administration of Canadian government policy.  The policy in whose service Scott never wavered was assimilation.  In Titley’s account one finds little to admire in either the policy or its civil servant.  There is no humanizing first-person narration in A Narrow Vision. The book detachedly concentrates on Scott the bureaucrat, making him the focus of an historical critique of Federal Indian policy.

     A Narrow Visions chapters are organized to present unchronologically the entire story of Scott’s career, from his 1879 appointment as copy clerk (by Sir John A. MacDonald) to his retirement as Deputy Chief Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1932.  Each chapter concentrates on a self-contained topic, some of them overlapping a little as they cover, from different perspectives, the same historical period or issue or character.  Chapter 1, “Indian Affairs: Origins and Development,” traces the continuity of assimilationist policy from its origin in the colonial 1830’s to the appointment of D.C. Scott as Deputy Chief Superintendent in 1913.  This chapter outlines the paternalistic terms of the 1876 Indian Act.  “General Aspects of Policy and Administration,” Chapter 3, deals with the “substantial bureaucracy” (p. 37)  Indian Affairs had become by 1913.   It shows the Indian Act being eroded by a series of amendments which “tended to increase the power of the department while concomitantly weakening the autonomy of the Indians” (p. 59).  “Schooling and Civilization,” Chapter 5, covers the depressing history of Indian education.  “The destruction of the children’s link to their ancestral culture and their assimilation into the dominant society were its main objectives” (p. 75).  In subject matter, this chapter runs parallel to that of Chapter 9.  “Senseless Drumming and Dancing” has to do with the attempt to suppress “native customs [rituals like the potlach and the sundance] which tended to undermine the values imparted in the classroom” (p. 162).  The title of this chapter is drawn from Scott’s description of Indian ceremonies, “superstitions and customs which,” he said elsewhere, “are doomed to complete disappearance in the near future, but naturally are dying hard” (p. 170).  The one appearance in Titley’s book made by the historical John MacDougall is in this chapter.

In November 1907, he wrote to the Winnipeg Free Press complaining about the suppression of dancing.  He pointed out that the dances were religious festivals and ought to be tolerated in the spirit of religious liberty (pp. 170-171)!

The exclamation mark is eloquent about the rarity of such ecumenical understanding.

     Of the six remaining chapters, four are about relationships between the Indian Affairs Department and Indians of particular tribes, organizations or regions.  “The Treaty Maker” (Chaper 4) uses the 1905 and 1906 Treaty #9 negotiations in Northern Ontario to investigate the general question of extinction of Indian title to the land.  “. . . the extinction of Indian title has only been sought,” Titley says, “when the land in question acquires economic importance to the dominant society” (p. 61).  The Cree and Ojibway who signed Treaty #9, as Scott acknowledged in his essay “The Last of the Indian Treaties,” were the classic minors, or children under the law, as defined by the Indian Act.  They had no real idea what sort of bargain they were making, and they had no MacDougall to explain it to them.  Other Indians were not so tractable.  They are dealt with in two chapters, 6 and 7.  The first of these tells the general story of “Indian Political Organizations” and their attempts to make themselves heard to an unreceptive Indians Affairs.  The second singles out for special attention “The Six Nations Status Case.”  The Six Nations Indians were organized and articulate.  During the 1920’s they persistently if unsuccessfully advanced a large claim for nothing less than self-rule, “for autonomy in the conduct of their own affairs on the grounds that they had never been conquered by the British, but had been their allies, first against the French and later in the American Wars” (p. 112).  The claim was hardly consistent with the assimilationist policy Scott administered, “ultimate destiny,” he called it (p. 116), and he set his powerful hand against it.  This struggle was complicated enough, but British Columbia land claims, the subject of Chapter 5, were even more tangled because of the extreme intransigence of the British Columbia Government.  Federal and provincial authorities often squabbled over Indian matters, but this was a “wearisome imbroglio” (p. 159) indeed.  It was not “settled” until 1938 when, “after sixty-seven years of irresolution and vacillation” (p. 160), British Columbia finally came to terms with the federal government over Indian lands.  British Columbia was “undoubtedly the villain of the piece” (p. 161), Titley points out, but he adds that “the federal government was hardly the champion of native rights” (p. 161).

     Scott had a great deal to do with all the negotiations and scheming Titley tells of in the four chapters just considered, and he acted always with “one assumption: the ultimate wisdom of government policy and of the men who formulated it” (p. 134).  As early as 1914, the year after he became the most powerful civil servant in Indian Affairs, Scott had outlined the basic position of his Department concerning “erroneous” Indian opinions as to aboriginal rights.   His basic finding, in a memorandum to the Superintendant General, was that “the Indian title was merely a ’usufructuary right dependent on the good will of the sovereign’ “ (p. 149).  Titley does not clearly define the legal term “usufructuary,” so he misses a chance to ironize over the narrow vision implicit in its use.  The noun means “One who has the temporary use and reaps the fruits or profits of an estate, benefice, office, etc., legally belonging to another or others” (QED).  How did the sovereign come to own the land?   Rudy Wiebe’s Big Bear asks a similar question, so simple and devastating that it takes an outsider like him to frame it: “Who can receive land?”  Big Bear asks when he is offered a reserve.  “From whom would he receive it” (p. 29)?  Of the law which Governor Morris tells him “is the same for red and white,” Big Bear says, “That may be.  But itself, it is only white” (p. 31).

     There are two other chapters in A Narrow Vision. The tenth gathers together the threads of the story of W.M. Graham, who appears in various other chapters as a man whose Indian Affairs star was rising along with that of Scott — though on the prairies — and whose ambitions finally came into conflict with Scott’s.  The second, the one I have saved to mention last, is the only one that fits uncomfortably in the book.  This is “The Poet and the Indians.”

     No book on Scott and Indians Affairs would be complete without some treatment of Scott’s poetry and fiction about Indians, but Titley’s competence does not reach into the literary, and perhaps he is wise to use over half his space in this chapter to sketch in Scott’s “private” life.  He then summarizes the critical debate over whether or not Scott’s writings show his true attitude towards the Indians.  “As these varying remarks show,” he concludes,

Scott’s poetry is a highly unreliable guide to his feelings regarding the native population.  Nor is it really necessary.  Scott’s pronouncements on Indians in readily comprehensible prose, in both an official and unofficial capacity, are legion.  Because of their frequency and unwavering consistency, they are by far the best guide to what the private and public man really believed (p. 32).

It is because Scott’s Indian poems touch their readers that some reader/critics, repelled by the cold official policy, are drawn to comb them for evidence of warmer feelings about the Indians.  But it is impossible simply to squeeze the beliefs out of a good poet’s poetry.   The poetry is exactly what eludes such attempts.  Not that Titley uses such grounds for moving away from the creative work.  He dismisses the ambignous poetry with relief and presses on to the “readily comprehensible” unofficial prose.  In this he finds no evidence that Scott’s private opinions differed from his public views:

He saw the Indians as primitive, child-like creatures in constant need of the paternal care of the government.  With guidance, they would gradually abandon their superstitious beliefs and barbaric behaviour and adopt civilization (p. 36).

In a sense, there is no way around this conclusion.  It does Scott no credit to assume that he did not say what he meant when he spoke in a public way.  Still, to say that there is no difference between Scott’s public and private views of the Indians (if that were granted) is not the same as saying that Scott the civil servant and Scott the man were identical.  Any character sketch of the man would mention his shyness, his austere aloofness, his generosity, his integrity, his wit and sense of humour.  Titley’s Scott has none of these qualities.  He is “ambitious” (p. 14).  He has “the penny-pinching mind of the bureaucrat” (p. 31).  He uses “draconian and prescriptive tactics” (p. 51).  He acts with “customary obdurancy” (sic) (p. 181); he is “adamant” (p. 196).  Titley does admit that “Scott was by no means the most inflexible or authoritarian official of his day” (p. 202) (Graham wins that title), but by no stretch of the mind can his version of Scott be called a positive one.  Titley is no friend of Scott’s, then, but is he fair to Scott, insofar as one can be fair to a human being he has reduced to a single dimension?

     Titley mentions in his Introduction to “The Poet and the Indians” that Scott “was a complex figure whose activities extended far beyond the civil service.”  “A critical assessment of Scott’s world view,” he goes on to say, “is long overdue” (p.  23).  That is true, and the task is such a demanding one that, even if he had the skills for it, perhaps Titley should not be blamed for leaving it to someone else.  At the same time, the omission certainly narrows his scope.  It raises some question about his reading of the documents that provided much of his raw material, because an insensitivity to writing that is not “readily comprehensible” may be an insensitivity to nuance.  Some things have to be read with intuition as well as intellect.  One should admit that nuance does not seem to be characteristic of the official prose that furnishes a lot of Titley’s source material; he once remarks on how little of the poet he finds in Scott’s official writings.  Speaking as one who has read through the Indian Affairs records relating to Treaty #9, I know that such documents show how well bureaucrats wear the mask that comes with the job.  The communication of bureaucrats, that is to say, is so governed by rule and precedent and conventional formulae of style and form as to create quite an opaque shield for personality.  And Scott could write a memo with the best of them.  I doubt that Titley missed many personal notes in correspondence meant to conceal such irrelevancies.  Maybe those who wear such masks deserve to have them mistaken for the real face.  Still, it is hard to see how Titley managed to remain so completely uninfluenced by the considerable amount of information that portrays Scott in a positive light.

     It is a highly selective reading of E.K. Brown’s “Memoir,” for example, that chooses from that laudatory and loving account these words, the last in Titley’s book:

[Scott’s] work in the civil service interested him, but the centre of his life was not in his office, where he seldom came early, and never stayed late.   After he retired his conversation did not run on the Indian Department.

These are damning words, taken in isolation (they say that the highest civil servant in Indian affairs for many years was a worker-to-rule), and they underline the fact that Brown is as blind to the civil servant as Titley is to the poet.  But my point is that the rhetorical effectiveness of Brown’s observation as the last word in Titley’s book depends on its being taken out of context.

     Rhetorically speaking, a fascinating passage for analysis is a wrapping-up paragraph near the end of Chapter 10, “The Ambitions of Commissioner Graham.” The context a reader brings to this passage is nearly two hundred pages of argument that Scott’s administration was little more than an obstacle to such real progress as might have been made on the Indian question — the Indian “problem” it was Scott’s professed aim to eliminate and which he bequeathed more or less intact when he retired from Indian Affairs:

Scott’s retirement was a long and pleasant affair.  With his new wife Elise, he indulged in his passion for travel, visiting Europe on a number of occasions.  England and Italy were his favourite destinations on the old continent.  As the western world struggled with the exigencies of the Depression, he could be seen touring European capitals “doing theatres and music.”  The Second World War put a halt to such pleasures, and the Scotts turned instead to the United States to satisfy their wanderlust.  The “burden of The Indian” and the rancorous disputes with Commissioner Graham were long forgotten (pp. 198-199).

I am interested both in what this passage says and in what it suppresses.  Titley’s words create an image of Scott’s retirement as a sort of leisurely Grand Tour of two continents.  The function in the passage of the two worldwide crises that coincided with Scott’s retirement is to imply by Scott’s aloofness from them his lack of concern about them.  What is the Depression to one with the resources for travel and the pursuit of cultural activities?  The Second World War is merely an impediment to doing more of the same.   The words “passion” and “wanderlust,” supplementing “pleasant” and “pleasures,” suggest a skewed sense of priorities in this telescoping of a fifteen year period of Scott’s life.  The word “passion” is used with opposite effect in Titley’s introduction of that passage I cited from E.K. Brown.  Why was Scott’s vision so narrow?  “The explanation, if there is one, may be in the fact that his position in the government was to Scott a mere source of income rather than an abiding passion” (p. 204).  What is not said in the paragraph about retirement?  The picture of the Scotts in their effortless extended holiday is not even qualified, as it might be, by connecting it with some material briefly presented in the following paragraph — reference to Scott’s publication during his retirement years of The Green Cloister, Walter J. Phillips, The Selected Poetry of Archibald Lampman and The Circle of Affection. As though those books just happened.  The Phillips and the Lampman projects were in fact complicated ones undertaken and carried out by an old man labouring under a deep sense of duty.

     I have spent some time on Titley’s loaded concluding words, those that create the image of Scott he wants to leave us with.  They pack “between the lines” an attitude that is overtly stated in the epigraph from the National Lampoon, a satiric encapsulation of Scott’s career of which this is the last sentence:


This is an odd epigraph for a scholarly book.  What is it doing here?  For one thing it plants an anti-Scott theme so radically stated that the ensuing volume seems moderate by comparison.  For another, it warns a reader not to expect a book that fails to take sides.

     Titley makes it fairly easy to take sides, with his unattractive portrait of Scott, but that is not unexpected in an area where there are real and abiding grievances.  And he is moderate compared to other writers on the subject.   The title of John Flood’s article tells his story in brief: “The Duplicity of Duncan Campbell Scott and the James Bay Treaty.” Another uncompromising title appears on a pamphlet, “The Story of a National Disgrace,” published in 1922 by Dr. P.H. Bryce.  Bryce was medical inspector to the Department of the Interior in 1909 and thereafter.  His recommendations for treatment of Indian tuberculosis were turned down by the “penny pinching” Scott, then superintendent of Indian education.   Indian children were dying in unhygenic living and educational facilities.   Against this reality Scott had to balance the reality of budget restraint.  He did not decide the budget, of course, and he had many things to do with the money allotted him, but even Titley’s unshrill account does not extenuate.

     The fact will always remain that things happened to the Indians that should not have happened while they were under Scott’s administration.  In fact the history of Scott’s administration has little to recommend it either to Indians or to Whites with a conscience.  Blame is the subtext of Titley’s book, but I would not say that he abuses the privilege of hindsight.  Some of the blame at least has got to stick to Scott.  It is too easy for the guilt to dissipate in a labyrinth of responsibility.

     “Scott would have been a significant historical figure had he never penned a stanza of poetry” (p. vii), Titley points out, in a handy corrective for those who think only or mainly of Scott’s literary importance.  A Narrow Vision is a useful book.  It organizes a great deal of information about the conduct of Indians Affairs in Canada.  If it verges at times on satire, with its creation of Duncan Campbell Scott, one-dimensionally narrow minded civil servant, that is a narrowness that can be allowed for.  The version is partial, not wrong, and anyone who tries to write the full story will have to take it into account.

Stan Dragland