Who really was Duncan Campbell Scott? How could he be a celebrated poet and, at the same time, be the engineer behind Canada's notorious residential school system? That's the baffling contradiction and mystery at the heart of Mark Abley's new biography Conversations With a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott.
In The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, edited by Margaret Atwood in 1982, Duncan Campbell Scott merits a generous eleven pages. His lyric poetry, often about indigenous people, helped earn him two Honourary Doctorates. The English poet John Masefield said that reading one of Scott's poems "set me on fire" and inspired Masefield to write poetry himself. Upon Duncan Campbell Scott's death, Saturday Night Magazine featured a homage entitled "Great Poet, Great Man".
Duncan Campbell Scott was also the overseer of one of the most brutal, repressive, and oppressive policies ever mounted against Aboriginal people in Canada: systemic assimilation through residential schools. It was a system of shameful cruelty and privation. And it was Duncan Campbell Scott, as a high-level Indian Affairs bureaucrat, who made attendance in those schools mandatory.
In his engaging new biography, the Montreal poet and non-fiction writer Mark Abley points to a central paradox in Scott's life: "While doing his utmost to enforce government control over indigenous people, Scott placed them at the centre of his most vibrant writing". Duncan Campbell Scott died in 1947, so Mark Abley wasn't able to speak with the real, living man. Instead, Abley imagines a series of conversations between himself and Scott's ghost, and those conversations are at the heart of his book Conversations With a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott.
Shelagh recently spoke with Mark Abley about that book. We hope you enjoy this extended version of their conversation.