I couldn’t help thinking of Duncan Campbell Scott when I read Doug Cuthand’s article this weekend. Cuthand is a member of the Little Pine First Nation and a columnist for both the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Regina Leader-Post. Before making his living as filmmaker and writer, Doug Cuthand spent fifteen years with the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations. He is well-qualified to write about Indigenous issues.
In a column published November 5 called Replace hidebound INAC with a 21st century ministry, Cuthand takes a critical look at Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and calls on the government to replace it with something more modern, and less redolent of the colonial era of Canada’s development.
“It also has a long history of meddling in First Nations affairs and providing substandard services,” says Cuthand. “The department has been a law unto itself for generations.”
Well, definitely since 1913 when the department came under the control of Canada’s mandarin/poet Duncan Campbell Scott. This was a man who joined the department in 1879 (when family friend Sir John A. MacDonald recommended him) and left in 1932 – a 53 year career in one department. No one person left a greater stamp on Indian Affairs than Duncan Campbell Scott.
It was Scott who advocated for the assimilation of Indigenous people, and increased residential school attendance from 11 thousand in 1913 to 17 thousand students in 1932. He did this by forcing students to go to residential schools, all the while knowing of the health problems at those schools, and failing to get enough money to adequately pay for their care, feeding and education. Scott was the most parsimonious of bureaucrats, ultimately valuing dollars over lives. This could well have been due to his belief that Indigenous people would disappear because of their perceived “inferior qualities.” In 1920 he explained in parliament
I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective 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…
Of course there was one voice that said these people could stand on their own, given half a chance. That voice belonged to my great-grandfather, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce and he had the evidence to back up his statement. One of the first things Bryce did when he was hired in Indian Affairs in 1904 was study the evidence to see if the myth that Indigenous people were spiritually, emotionally and physically inferior was true. Bryce’s minister, Sir Clifford Sifton had said just that in a committee meeting in 1900, so it was a career-limiting moment when Bryce reported that there was no indication of physical inferiority in Indigenous people. What he did find instead was that European people who lived in the same conditions as Indigenous people had similar rates of disease and mortality. This was not news that the penny-pinching Duncan Campbell Scott would have welcomed, so instead Scott did his best to discredit my great-grandfather.
“It was Duncan Campbell Scott who received Peter Bryce’s report (on conditions in residential schools) and moved to suppress that report and discredit your great-grandfather,” says Cindy Blackstock. When Duncan Campbell Scott became deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1913, he relieved Peter H. Bryce from his duties as Chief Medical Officer, and discontinued the practice of issuing an annual report on the health of Indigenous people.
The First Nations case against the Federal government at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal proved that the federal government spends less on social services for Indigenous children than on non-Indigenous children. I also note that INAC lapsed (meaning “didn’t spend”) 900 million dollars last year. These two facts alone make me think Mr. Cuthand has a good point – it seems not much has changed since the colonial days of Duncan Campbell Scott and Peter H. Bryce.