‘How can the red men be forgotten, while so many of our states and territories, bays, lakes, and rivers, are indelibly stamped by names of their giving?’
Ye say they all have passed away,
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave;
That ’mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter shout,
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.
’Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled,
Where strong Niagara’s thunders wake
The echo of the world.
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.
Ye say their cone-like cabins,
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have fled away like withered leaves
Before the autumn gale,
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.
Old Massachusetts wears it,
Within her lordly crown,
And broad Ohio bears it,
Amid his young renown;
Connecticut hath wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And bold Kentucky breathed it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.
Wachuset hides its lingering voice
Within his rocky heart,
And Alleghany graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock on his forehead hoar
Doth seal the sacred trust,
Your mountains build their monument,
Though ye destroy their dust.
Ye call these red-browned brethren
The insects of an hour,
Crushed like the noteless worm amid
The regions of their power;
Ye drive them from their father’s lands,
Ye break of faith the seal,
But can ye from the court of Heaven
Exclude their last appeal?
Ye see their unresisting tribes,
With toilsome step and slow,
On through the trackless desert pass
A caravan of woe;
Think ye the Eternal’s ear is deaf?
His sleepless vision dim?
Think ye the soul’s blood may not cry
From that far land to him?
Scott was always moderate in his public pronouncements. Privately, he had much less use for the instant-result crowd.5 On [page xii] February 23,1935, he wrote to Pelham Edgar that “When one looks at the literary life in the mass one can have no respect for it. This outpouring of books of no particular importance and the rush of misleading advts and reviews! how sordid it all seems. As I have never had any part or lot in it I can still enjoy those old, and some few new things that appeal to me.” Scott sees himself as most of his critics have seen him — the austere artist, the poet’s poet, untainted by commercialism or make-work writing. In view of his frequent complaints in later life that his job was blocking his writing, it’s interesting that at least once he endorsed a split between the two sorts of work. “[T]hough it sometimes seems hard not to have more time to give what one is deeply interested in,” he wrote to Peter MacArthur on July 29, 1897, “yet it is better not to depend for one’s livelihood upon one’s imagination and fancy.” Better? Perhaps, though I sense a shade of “easier” here. The marketplace kills poetry — that is Scott’s assumption. A more virile6 approach to this commonplace might have been to set up in the marketplace with one’s best. That best and the marketplace (more generally, the public realm) might then undergo complementary transformations. But it remained for a later generation of poets to imagine a role for poetry in, for example, politics. In E.J. Pratt’s Towards the Last Spike, “The moulding of men’s minds was harder far / Than moulding of the steel [the railroad, the nation] and prior to it” (215) and canny use of metaphor is what moulds minds.
With a few exceptions, Scott was not, in his non-fiction, “the worker who toils for the last perfection.” Why not? Is there a double standard, one for poetry and fiction, and another for non-fiction? (I think Scott is referring to stories rather then to non-fiction prose when he observes that “My prose is written very much like my verse and I cannot get the rhythm of it if I dictate or typewrite” — to B.K. Sandwell, September 9, 1945.) Would occasional prose pieces have shone brighter if Scott had enjoyed writing them? He was a very private man drawn against his wishes into a public life requiring speeches or lectures or essays that he would have ducked if he could. Of his longest essay, the three-part “Indian Affairs” published in Canada and Its Provinces, he confided to Pelham Edgar that “I am pulling together some stuff for Doughty and Shortt’s History of Canada supposed to be about Indians, a pure task, nothing more” (March, 1911). Purely a task, he means. Not that the task was easy. It required a huge amount of research, and the writing, [page xiii] however bland the results, must have been very taxing. Scott was often asked or required to write about Indians and the Department of Indian Affairs that employed him for half a century, and only one essay bears any marks of personal enthusiasm and connection with his subject. “The Last of the Indian Treaties,” the account of his 1905 Treaty 9 negotiating trip, by canoe, among the Cree and Ojibway of Northern Ontario, is the essay that appears in The Circle of Affection, and it is the only Indian essay with much literary merit.
Early in his career, Scott may have seen the positive side of being an amateur (in the root sense of lover) rather than a professional writer, but he did often curse his job for interfering with his writing. This, to Pelham Edgar, is typical: “I have not much verse to send you as I am a bearer of burdens[,] and only occasionally can I get the time for the fundamental brain work, the quiet for the necessary thought” (November/December 1913). In 1913 he still had almost twenty more years to spend in Indian Affairs, and 1914 was the year of his promotion to Deputy Minister of his Department, after which the pressure increased. One of the large company of artists whose gainful employment starved their art, Scott would have empathized with the grasshopper/artist in the fable, fiddling away the summer while the practical ants busily lay up provisions for the winter. In his own way, he was trying to re-write that story so that grasshopper-fiddlers would rise in the estimation of ants.7 Actually, he was ant and grasshopper both — capable civil servant and good poet — but he hated his job. Career-long frustration boils up in a letter he writes to William Arthur Deacon on the eve of his retirement from Indian Affairs: “I am glad you dwell on my essential Canadianism. I think that is true & I hope to write a few more such poems when I am released from my fifty year imprisonment with the savages” (February 8, 1931).
This from the pen of the author of “At Gull Lake: August 1810,” from a man who has dreamed his way into otherness. Shocking, now that the word “savage” is understood to express a tragically limited cultural attitude. It would have been shocking to few whites in 1931, though, and the shift in perception that has taken place — a casual remark in one era becomes a flashpoint in another — ought to be unsettling. Scott’s relationship with the Native people he thought of as “wards” does not in fact reduce to an “imprisonment with the savages,” but the words reveal an unbridgeable gap between himself and his charges and suggest why so much of his [page xiv] prose about First Nations people was perfunctory. Scott wrote with passion and conviction about Indians, he wrote well about them, only when he was free to choose his subject and his medium. Perhaps it was only when he was not engaged as official, as authority, that there could be any possibility of true (paper) relationship with Native people.
In 1982, Robert Bringhurst wrote about Dennis Lee that “He has not, to my knowledge, published a glib page in more than a decade” (59). I first read that as a remarkable compliment, touching Lee’s writing as well as his seriousness, and of course it is. Recently it has occurred to me to think of the writer who pays the compliment as a kind of quality monitor, ringing the writing of his contemporaries to test it for the true. This may sound officious, but it is no more than the audible voice of high standards all but taken for granted. It is a sign that slippage in quality will be noticed, and it is one voice of many now supporting toilers for the last perfection in this country’s literature. After Archibald Lampman died, where was Scott’s support? He had intermittent editorial advice about poetry from Pelham Edgar over the long years of their literary friendship, and Edgar may have looked at some of his stories as well, but who helped Scott with his prose? Who pushed him? No one that I know of. Few writers sustain high standards in isolation, and in many ways Scott was a lonely writer.
Scott was a puritan. He always rose to a sense of duty. His very success as Indian Affairs ant — he did excellent work by civil service standards — was what eventually made his name hated among Indians. The more successfully Indian Affairs pushed its now-abandoned cornerstone policy of assimilation, the worse things were for the First Nations. To this policy, most of the administrative evils now generally recognized as such — suppression of Native ceremonies, rending of Native families by the imposition of residential schools; in short, the concentrated attack on Native cultures and languages and institutions — can be traced. Scott was for many years the glue of assimilationist policy. He may have lacked access to legislative power, but he was the efficient civil servant who kept the racist policy focused. No wonder he is now, and always will be, the focus of blame for it.
One thing his essays make clear is that Scott the bureaucrat is consistent with Scott the cultural worker in at least one respect. I have said that Scott’s essays show working towards a “national [page xv] life” for Canada. That phrase or a variation on it appears in several of the essays on Indian subjects. It shows up often when the subject is assimilation, the policy intended to make Indians more and more invisible on the way to complete absorption into “the national life.” This statement about the reserve system, charged with contradiction as it is, is typical: