Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Conversations With a Dead Man

Conversations With A Dead Man

Mark Abley



All Canadians are aware of the misery exacted on little children in the Indian Residential Schools.  But many do not know the name of the man who oversaw these institutions: Deputy Superintendent-General Duncan Campbell Scott.  If they have heard the name, it is probably because he was one of Canada's most famous poets and received Honorary Doctorates from Queen's and McGill Universities.

This book resurrects Scott, accuses him and allows him to mount his own defense.  In an original and engaging literary conceit, he makes a dozen visits to the home of the author in a quest to understand his posthumous notoriety and clear his name.  In their conversations, we learn about his life, his passions and sorrows, and the job that he held for fifty years.

The themes are original and serious.  The major consideration is the sin of omission, of not taking leadership and turning a blind eye.  We are led to consider the weight of judgement passed by one generation on another.  The other major theme, of course, is racism, particularly the form inherent in a colonialist attitude.

The picture that Abley presents of racism in colonizing nations is not new to older readers, but the details he has assembled are impressive in their severity and scope.  A lot of research lies behind this book and the information is appalling to our modern sensibilities.  Further research is made easy by a very readable list of sources.

As I got into the book, I was engrossed by the dilemma:  Was Abley going to find Scott guilty as charged, or unfairly targeted in a society that mirrored his values?

There is a lot to be said in Scott's defense.  He was a man of his time, reflecting the mores of his generation.  Worse things were done to aboriginal people in Australia, the United States and Africa.  At least, Canada's Indian population did not die out.

The verdict is against Scott in the end.  He is guilty of sins of omission.  But his own defense is sympathetically presented.  Abley's own convictions have condemned Scott, but the door is left open for argument.

In the present political climate in Canada, it would have been difficult for Abley to have reached any other verdict without drawing fire upon himself. The residential school system is the current whipping post for all the problems which the aboriginal population is suffering  today.  The horrors described to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission make it hard to forgive any aspect of the programme.
We know that the problems facing Canada's Indians are complex and go beyond the abuses and assumptions of the residential schools.  Abley concentrates on the repressive programmes for which Scott was responsible during his time at Indian Affairs.  It is a complicated challenge that he has set for himself.
The writing is nicely balanced between dialogue in the present and factual accounts of the history of Canada's Indian policies.   Scott, the person behind the policies, is brought to life clearly, and we can picture his brooding figure treading the Ottawa streets that we know today.

I found the theme of judgement by one generation upon another a disquieting one.  We may smugly condemn the attitudes and actions of the past, but how will our descendants judge us?  In our time it is impossible not to know about suffering and injustice here in Canada and around the world.  What do we do about it?  We know that we are ruining earth's climate in our culture of consumption.  What will our grandchildren have to say about us, who are guilty of the same sins of omission and laissez-faire with which Scott is condemned?  In Abley's last meeting with Scott, there  is an expectation that the two will meet again in an afterlife, and the implication is made that we will all face a judgement by future generations.

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