Content warning: This article discusses racism and violence against Indigenous peoples.
Students and advocates are petitioning U of T to demand that it publicly rescind the honorary doctorate degree it awarded to writer Duncan Campbell Scott in 1922. At the time, he was serving as the deputy superintendent at the Department of Indian Affairs, which oversaw Canada’s residential schools.
The petition says that U of T has historically enhanced Scott’s reputation and helped create and sustain a political culture of racism and colonialism by awarding him the honour, when he should be held responsible for the harm his work has done to Indigenous peoples. The petition notes that the 2022 convocation could be an important opportunity for U of T to correct its actions publicly.
“Scott’s honorary degree has become part of the confirmation of Canadian racist mythologies that legitimate colonialism while ignoring the horrific cost to Indigenous peoples. One hundred years later, it is time to correct the record,” reads the petition.
A similar petition was also initiated at Queen’s University, where Scott received his honorary law degree.
Students demand Scott’s degrees be rescinded
Amanda Buffalo, a U of T doctoral student who is an Indigenous person, was one of the sponsors of the petition. Buffalo said she learned about the degree awarded to Scott in the book Royally Wronged, in which current members of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) explore the organization’s historical contributions to a knowledge system rooted in colonialism. Scott formerly served as the president of the RSC.
Buffalo said that, in the wake of the discoveries of mass graves in former residential school sites and the injustices against Indigenous peoples, now is a good time for U of T to reconsider the honour it awarded to Scott. “I thought 100 years after the fact would be a perfect time for the University of Toronto to reconsider the conference of that degree on Duncan Campbell Scott and move toward reconciliation with Indigenous people,” she said.
Buffalo noted that Scott’s works of literature were “instrumental” in the cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. She said that Scott had envisioned exterminating Indigenous peoples in Canada and expressed this view very extensively in his work. She added that his position as a public servant allowed him to put this vision into practice.
Buffalo is concerned that Scott’s work is still taught as though his contribution to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada does not continue to have an impact today. “I don’t consider Duncan Campbell Scott a controversial figure: the evidence is clear that he was just an incredibly violent man who committed acts of genocide against Indigenous people. There is no controversy,” she said.
Buffalo said she hopes to speak with U of T’s president and vice-president provost to have a conversation about how to examine legacies like Scott’s and move toward reconciliation. She noted that there is clear support for the petition, and that this initiative would be an opportunity to build toward a more just society. As of January 30, the petition has gathered over 1,100 signatures.
“I think this petition is less of a demand and more of an invitation to have more conversations [and] really engage in acts of reconciliation,” said Buffalo. She believes that discussion about the honorary degree is an opportunity to engage with reconciliation, and she encourages postsecondary institutions to do their part to address the historical wrong.
Tayte Gossling, a fourth-year undergraduate student at Queen’s University, initiated a similar petition that demands that Queen’s rescind the honorary law degree it granted to Scott. Gossling said she learned more about Scott in a class reading that centred on residential schools and was shocked to find out Queen’s had given him an honorary degree.
“I think my experience throughout my time at Queen’s has been a lot of realization that racism and sexism are really, really pervasive on campus. But I didn’t really know that legacies as extreme as Duncan Campbell Scott’s were honoured and kind of enshrined within our institution,” said Gossling in an interview with The Varsity.
Gossling said that Canadian universities often rely on performative statements on Truth and Reconciliation that are not followed by concrete actions in addressing issues that affect Indigenous peoples.
“If you’re not really putting your money where your mouth is, it’s completely lip service,” said Gossling.
U of T’s response
In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson wrote that senior leadership is actively considering assessing the honours awarded to historical figures. They wrote that U of T would do so in the context of Canadian society’s current reevaluation of its history, and that more details of the university’s plan would be released in the coming months.
“As a leading global public university, any assessment of the role of historical figures must be based on rigorous research and academic scholarship. We are committed to developing strong principles to inform University processes, so that these complex matters can be resolved appropriately and respectfully,” reads the email.
Explaining Scott’s legacy
Cindy Blackstock, a member of Gitksan First Nation and a professor at McGill University’s School of Social Work, told The Varsity that she believes it is important that people see Scott as a leader of Canada’s residential school system.
“So when we think about Duncan Campbell Scott as a [Confederation] Poet… we also need to think about his legacy as the leading public servant of the residential school… for 52 years, and then ask ourselves the question: which of those legacies has had a greater impact on Canadian society?”
She added that Scott’s poetry needs to be read in a way that takes the context of residential schools into account. “If you read his poetry, it’s very racist,” she said.
Blackstock also serves as the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, which commissioned a report on Scott’s life in 2016. The report concluded that Scott’s contributions to Canadian literature are “far outweighed” by the detrimental impacts of him overseeing the residential school system.
“We all have legacies — multiple legacies — but not all of our legacies are equal. So it’s important that we [weigh] our legacies properly,” said Blackstock.
Scott in context
Blackstock noted that Scott was not just a product of his time, but someone who actively ignored the horrific conditions in the residential schools because he saw them as necessary for clearing land for settlement. She explained that it was Scott’s “conscious choice” to perpetuate residential school policy and that he was fully aware of the abnormally high death rate of Indigenous children in those schools. She pointed out that back in the early twentieth century, the mistreatment of Indigenous children had already made national headlines and received criticism on multiple fronts.
“The needless deaths of children in residential schools… that was in the public, in the press,” said Blackstock. “Headlines like ‘Absolute inattention to bare necessities and health,’ ‘Children dying like flies.’ [Those were] the Canadian headlines in 1908.”
In 1922, the year that U of T granted Scott the honorary doctorate, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce — the medical inspector at the Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs at the time — published his book, The Story of a National Crime: Being an Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada.
The book presents evidence of the government’s ignorance and inaction toward the appalling conditions that led to large numbers of deaths among Indigenous children. “[In the schools, a] trail of disease and death has gone almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs,” it reads.
Some people from fields other than medicine also expressed their concerns about the dire conditions in residential schools and questioned the residential school system. An Ontario attorney and judge, Samuel Hume Blake, wrote in 1908 that he had “a general and strong feeling of dissatisfaction” with how Indigenous peoples were treated. In 1906, the Diocese of Saskatchewan commented that the residential school system was “detrimental to the Indians” and, in the same year, the Bishop of Moosonee wrote that there was an “appalling death-rate amongst the children.”
“[The condition of residential schools] was known back then. The people of the period thought this was egregious, if not criminal,” said Blackstock. “[Scott] didn’t disagree that the kids were dying. He knew they were. He had solutions to save their lives, and he knew those solutions would work. He simply chose not to implement them.”
She noted that, given these reports and criticism were already circulating among much of Canadian society, it would be very hard to believe that U of T was not aware of the deaths in residential schools and of Scott’s involvement in those deaths at the time that they gave Scott his honorary degree.
“We need to trust people with the truth,” said Blackstock. She said it is important that historical facts are presented to the public so that people have the opportunity to reflect on them and learn their lessons. “It’s being able to learn from the past, but in a way that awakens you to the current injustices and empowers you to address them,” said Blackstock.
“In terms of their contemporary actions… [universities] have a higher obligation to stand in the winds of discrimination,” said Blackstock.