Duncan Campbell Scott was the son of Janet Scott (née McCallum) and Methodist preacher, William Scott. Educated in Smiths Falls, Ontario, he later went on to attend junior college in Stanstead, Québec.
Scott’s family could not financially support his dream of becoming a doctor. Instead, through his political contacts, Scott’s father was able to get his son a job with the federal Department of Indian Affairs (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada). At age 17, he was appointed copy clerk.
Work in Music and Theatre
At a young age, Duncan Campbell Scott expressed an interest in music, and he became a skilled pianist.English professor Edgar Pelham suggested that Scott’s love for music influenced his writing style. He once described several of Scott’s poems as “[simulating] the movement of a musical sonata.”
Scott was president of the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra and the Ottawa Dramatic League. He was also involved in founding the Ottawa Little Theatre and the Dominion Drama Festival. (See also Little Theatre Movement.) His one-act play, Pierre, was performed at the Ottawa Little Theatre in 1923 and subsequently published in Canadian Plays from Hart House Theatre (1926). (See also Hart House.)
By the late 1880s, Duncan Campbell Scott was a regular contributor to Scribner’s Magazine, an American periodical in print from 1887 to 1939. With Canadian poets Archibald Lampman and Wilfred Campbell, he contributed informal essays to the Toronto Globe column, “At the Mermaid Inn,” in 1892–93. The collection was later published as a book with the same title in 1979. (See also Globe and Mail.)
Scott’s In the Village of Viger (1896) is a collection of short stories focusing on life in a rural French-Canadian village. Two later collections, The Witching of Elspie (1923) and The Circle of Affection (1947), contain many short stories in wilderness settings.
For the Makers of Canada (a series of books designed to present Canadian history through a study of its major figures), Scott wrote a biography of John Graves Simcoe in 1905. In 1947, he published a book on artist Walter J. Phillips.
Scott also wrote a work of fiction around 1905 that did not go to press until 1979, under the title The Untitled Novel. Published in 2001, The Uncollected Short Stories of Duncan Campbell Scott brings together his short fiction.
He also wrote plays, including Pierre (produced in 1921), Prologue (1923) and Joy! Joy! Joy! (1927).
In 1893, Scott published his first volume of poetry, The Magic House and Other Poems. Seven more collections of poems followed: Labor and the Angel (1898), New World Lyrics and Ballads (1905), Via Borealis (1906), Lundy’s Lane and Other Poems (1916), Beauty and Life (1921), The Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott (1926) and The Green Cloister (1935). The Circle of Affection (1947), primarily a collection of prose, includes a number of poems not previously published. (See also Poetry in English.)
Scott edited many of Archibald Lampman’s poems after Lampman’s death in 1899 in two collections: The Poems of Archibald Lampman (1900) and Lyrics of the Earth: Poems and Ballads (1925). A close friend and fellow poet, it was Lampman who had encouraged Scott to try writing poetry in the 1880s.
Although he complained that his works were neglected by fellow poets, Scott has been well represented in many major anthologies of Canadian poetry. Indeed, Scott is commonly placed with the “poets of the Confederation” — a group of late 19th century English-language poets born in the decade of Confederation, and whose work lay firm foundations for a tradition of Canadian poetry.
However, Scott’s literary representations of First Nations peoples in his poetry and fiction has generated considerable critical controversy. In poems such as his 1894 sonnet, “The Onondaga Madonna,” Scott presents his Indigenous subjects as noble, but “doomed.” The “noble savage” stereotype was one used by many of Scott’s contemporaries to romanticize Indigenous peoples as untamed but pure. Many late-20th- and early-21st-century writers, such as Northrop Frye, have noted the dark irony of Scott’s poetic sorrow for dying cultures that his own Department of Indian Affairs was actively eradicating, mainly through the residential school system.
Department of Indian Affairs
Having first joined the federal Department of Indian Affairs in 1879, Duncan Campbell Scott steadily rose through the ranks, and was appointed deputy superintendent in 1913, a position he held until 1932. In this role, Scott became the highest-ranking cabinet member on matters concerning Indigenous affairs, and played a central role in both Treaty 9 (also known as the James Bay Treaty) and the expansion of the residential school system.
In the summers of 1905 and 1906, Scott served as one of the federal government’s commissioners for Treaty 9. He went to Northern Ontario to meet with Cree and Ojibwe leaders to explain the terms of the treaty. (See also Numbered Treaties.)
In exchange for signing Treaty 9, the Indigenous peoples were promised reserves, money, education (later provided by residential schools) and rights to hunt and fish, while the government received the right to open the region to development projects, such as mining, lumbering, railway construction, immigration and trade. From the Indigenous perspective, this was a land-sharing agreement. From the government’s perspective, the treaty effectively surrendered Indigenous title to the land. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Many descendants of the Cree and Ojibwe signatories contend that their ancestors agreed to the treaty based on false pretences. They argue that the written text of Treaty 9 does not include all the protections and concessions that Scott and other government representatives had verbally promised.
For example, the Commissioners’ Official Report of 12 July 1905 stated that, after Cree and Ojibwe leaders showed reluctance to sign the treaty because of its threat to their traditional ways of life, the commissioners told them that “they could continue to live as they and their forefathers had done.” More specifically, the Indigenous peoples “were assured that they were not expected to give up their hunting-grounds, that they might hunt and fish throughout all the country.” However, the actual treaty text reveals that rights to the land are limited; the government can except “tracts [of land] as may be required or taken up from time to time for settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes.”
Treaty 9 First Nations maintain that they never relinquished their rights to traditional territory. Therefore, they argue, the government requires their consent before proceeding with any resource development or similar project on their land.
Duncan Campbell Scott played a pivotal role in the expansion of the residential school system. Children who attended these schools were often taken from their families by force, and were not allowed to speak their own language or practice their culture. Many children were physically, mentally and sexually assaulted in these schools. (See also I Couldn’t Forget: Reflections on Truth and Reconciliation.)
In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, Canada’s Chief Medical Health Officer, submitted a report to the Department of Indian Affairs (commonly referred to as the Bryce Report, officially known as the Report on the Indian Schools of Manitoba and the North-West Territories), revealing that overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions were spreading disease, primarily tuberculosis, and that students were dying from it. Scott disregarded the report. In 1920, he changed the Indian Act to force Indigenous children between the ages of 7 and 15 to attend residential school.
Writer Mark Abley argues that Scott is often misquoted as having said that the goal of residential schools was to “kill the Indian in the child.” Abley instead credits this line to an American military officer. While Scott may not have uttered those words, he did say something similar in 1920, before the amendment to the Indian Act became law that same year:
I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that this country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. That is my whole point…Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian department, that is the whole object of this Bill.
Duncan Campbell Scott married American violinist Belle Warner Botsford in 1894. They had one daughter together, Elizabeth Scott, who died at the age of 12. After Belle’s death in 1929, he remarried two years later to poet Elise Aylen. Scott travelled extensively after his retirement, visiting various parts of Canada, the United States and Europe.
Scott was well regarded in mainstream Canadian society during his lifetime. He received honorary degrees and other distinctions, and his work as a poet has been published in various anthologies of Canadian poetry. However, as the effects of his policies towards Indigenous peoples came to light over the course of the late-20th and early-21st centuries, his legacy became increasingly tarnished. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission argued that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide.” That same year, the plaque commemorating Scott near his grave in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery was changed to include information about his role in the expansion and implementation of the schools. It reads: “As Deputy Superintendent, Scott oversaw the assimilationist Indian Residential School system for Aboriginal children, stating his goal was to ‘get rid of the Indian problem.’”
- Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1899), elected President (1921)
- Honorary Doctor of Letters, D.Litt., University of Toronto (1922)
- Lorne Pierce Medal of the Royal Society of Canada (1927)
- Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (1934)
- Honorary Doctor of Laws, LL.D., Queen’s University (1939)