Romanticism & Aboriginal Rights in Canada: A Primer

Screen shot 2015-07-01 at 10.03.54 AMAt the upcoming NASSR conference on “Romanticism and Rights” in Winnipeg, Canada this August, one of the headline events is the Aboriginal Rights Panel, which I expect many readers of this blog will attend. But what readers may not know is that Canada is at this moment at the centre of a deep and painful investigation into the ongoing legacies of the colonial maltreatment of Native people, which in June 2015 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined cultural genocide. Most of all, readers may not be aware of the pernicious influence of British Romanticism in forming the ideological conditions in which this cultural genocide took place.

The verdict of cultural genocide was applied by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to a governmentally enforced programme of residential (boarding) schools for Native children (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis), which operated from 1831 until the last residential school closed in 1996. An amendment to the Indian Act in 1920 made attendance for Native children at such schools mandatory, meaning that generations of children were taken away from their parents. The curriculum was designed to assimilate Native children into Euro-Canadian culture by prohibiting children from speaking their own languages. The staff in these schools, who were usually affiliated with religious organizations, condoned physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Illness was rampant, and in some schools more than half the children had untreated tuberculosis. Of the 150,000 children who passed through the residential school system, at least 4,000 died.

Though the last residential schools have been closed for almost two decades, their lasting effects on the survivors are still strongly felt. Winnipeg and the surrounding area are particularly affected by the legacy of the residential schools. Many Native women in the Red River area, near Winnipeg, are murdered or missing, as this BBC series reports. (Asked about conducting an inquiry to find out what happened to the missing women, the Prime Minister responded, “It isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest.”) And in January 2015, Maclean’s magazine found that Winnipeg was “Canada’s most racist city” due to  its racially divided neighbourhoods and its residents’ treatment of the aboriginal population.

But who established this policy of Native assimilation that resulted in residential schools and cultural genocide?

It was a Wordsworthian.

Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947) was a Canadian-born civil servant who rose to become the head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. He joined the Department in1879 at the behest of the first Canadian Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, who was impressed by his demeanour during their first meeting. Scott remained in the civil service for the rest of his career. As the head of Indian Affairs, Scott instituted the policies of mandatory attendance in residential schools for children between 7 and 15, with the belief that “The happiest future for the Indian race is absorption into the general population.” Elsewhere, he wrote,

I want to get rid of the Indian problem… 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, that is the whole object of this Bill.

Because of such attitudes and their devastating effects for Native people, members of Canada’s National History Society placed Scott on the list of “Worst Canadians” in The Beaver magazine in August, 2007.

But Scott’s real passion was poetry, which he wrote and published to wide acclaim throughout his lifetime. Scott is  considered one of the “Confederation Poets,” who were writing distinctly Canadian literature in the years that followed national independence in 1867. Scott was directly inspired by the nineteenth-century English poets, and he was particularly fond of Wordsworth. His 1905 collection of poems, for instance, is called New World Lyrics and Ballads, and in that volume he borrows materials quite directly from the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. Scott adapted Wordsworth’s “The Forsaken Indian Woman,” which was itself based on Samuel Hearne’s journals of travel in Canada, in a poem of his own, “The Forsaken,” and this poem remains his best known work today. Both Scott and Wordsworth’s poems describe a Native mother abandoned by her community to die in the wilderness, according to custom. In both poems, the mother’s devotion to her child is idealized by the poetic speaker: while in Wordsworth the mother is separated from her child, who has been given to another woman, in “The Forsaken” the mother manages to save her child’s life, only to be left to die by her descendents more than thirty years later. Like Wordsworth, Scott strives for a pared-down, naturalistic representation of language in a balladic metre, and he even includes an untranslated word from the woman’s language.

Contrasting his idealized portrait of the Native mother and child in “The Forsaken” with his actual policies towards Native people, Scott’s modern critics have called attention to the hypocrisy of his attitudes:

[Scott] took a romantic interest in Native traditions, he was after all a poet of some repute (a member of the Royal Society of Canada), as well as being an accountant and a bureaucrat . He was three people rolled into one confusing and perverse soul. The poet romanticized the whole ‘noble savage’ theme, the bureaucrat lamented our inability to become civilized, the accountant refused to provide funds for the so-called civilization process. In other words, he disdained all ‘living’ Natives but ‘extolled the freedom of the savages.’

Scott’s lyrical admiration of the forsaken Native woman and child was derived from Wordsworth’s aims to represent people in destitute conditions and from humble walks of life in poetic terms. And yet, as we see, he was far from humanized by his encounter with the Lyrical Ballads: they merely served as poetic inspiration that had no bearing on his devastating policies. Moreover, even his poetic language betrays the encroachment of his Eurocentric ideals on his Native subjects.

At NASSR 2015, then, it will be very interesting for us to see whether Romanticism remains complicit with Duncan Campbell Scott’s doublethink, or whether it can be redeemed in some way to promote aboriginal rights. With all the attention in the period 1789-1830 to civil liberties, the condition of the human, and the “real language of men,” Romanticism may nonetheless be, in the words of Tony Davies, “imperial, speaking of the human in the accents and the interests of a class, a sex, a race.”