Content warning: This article describes current and historical injustices committed against Indigenous peoples.
Students and advocates have recently started a petition calling for U of T to publicly rescind the honorary doctorate degree the university had awarded to writer Duncan Campbell Scott in 1922. The petitioners claimed that by giving the degree to Scott, U of T has bolstered his reputation despite the harm he had done to Indigenous peoples in his position as deputy superintendent at the Department of Indian Affairs.
Two contributors reflect on whether righting past wrongs and rescinding the degree would empower the Indigenous community and actually lead to tangible change.
Condemnation can move us closer to reconciliation
Duncan Campbell Scott is a historical figure best known for his integral role in enforcing the residential school policy and thus perpetuating an inherently racist and oppressive system. His position as the deputy superintendent at the Department of Indian Affairs led to the expansion of the residential school system in Canada. Scott’s writings, including as Treaty 9, were also particularly influential in the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples.
Scott was more than just a product of a racist society. At the time, awareness of the cruel conditions within residential schools was already spreading, but Scott chose to further expand the residential school system nonetheless. Ultimately, Scott’s enduring legacy is a testament to the impact of settler colonialism on Indigenous communities.
This prompts the question — why would U of T have awarded Scott an honorary degree given his deplorable actions against Indigenous peoples? Furthermore, why would U of T have let him keep that honour, considering the lasting impact of his legacy on Indigenous communities?
The truth is that honoring Scott’s legacy only further hinders our attempts to move toward reconciliation. Keeping his honours not only condones his actions, but it also supports a colonial past built upon a legacy of racism, oppression, and, ultimately, genocide.
Rescinding Scott’s honours — and the honours of those with legacies like Scott’s — is a critical first step in moving toward a more inclusive society. It may seem like a superficial action of no real consequence, but the reality is that continuing to remain ignorant of our history makes us complicit in perpetuating the racist ideals of our past.
Dismantling the legacy of figures such as Scott marks a significant step forward in dismantling the racist constructs that remain deeply embedded in our society because of these figures. Holding Scott accountable for his actions and acknowledging their lasting impact allows us to critically examine where we have gone wrong as a society and how we can do better in the future.
Although there is nothing that can be done to bring back the Indigenous children who died in residential schools, there is something that can be done about the cruel lasting impact of legacies like Scott’s. Condemning Scott and his extreme discriminatory views can allow us to move one step closer toward reconciliation.
Shernise Mohammed-Ali is a third-year neuroscience, psychology, and English student at Victoria College. She is an associate comment editor at The Varsity.
Changing the past won’t fix the future
Duncan Campbell Scott was not a good person. An anti-Indigenous residential school advocate like Scott should never have been awarded an honorary degree in the first place, especially given that there was already public outcry over the conditions at residential schools at the time it was awarded. This much is not up for debate.
But while there is nothing inherently wrong with rescinding the honorary degree, we must reflect on our society’s obsession with symbolic acts such as these — rescinding degrees, renaming streets, and removing names — and whether they are truly productive.
It is not the names or degrees of our unethical forefathers that carry on their legacy; their legacy lives on in the disproportionately high Indigenous mortality rate, health disparities for Indigenous peoples, and the lack of Indigenous peoples in Canadian leadership. Scott has been dead since 1947, while Indigenous peoples today are living in abhorrent conditions on reserves with no clean water. Scott has been dead since 1947, while living, breathing Indigenous peoples have consistently higher rates of suicide than non-Indigenous people.
How will exacting revenge on a dead racist person heal these current injustices? Although they may feel therapeutic, token acts like rescinding Scott’s degree will do nothing to erase the present legacy of Scott’s wrongdoings. Only future-oriented action can propel society forward.
Furthermore, would rescinding the honorary degree actually serve to absolve the university of its complicity or its bad record? The petition calling for the rescindment writes, “Scott’s honorary degree [confirms] 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.”
History cannot be truly corrected — especially historical atrocities and wrongdoings. Trying to “correct the record” allows U of T to wipe its hands of its mistakes. The fact that Scott was awarded the degree serves as a testament to the university’s racist past. We should let U of T live with that fact.
Whenever I hear about symbolic acts of reconciliation, a quote that’s often attributed to African American activist Malcolm X always comes to mind: “The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and real justice.” Malcolm’s quote makes us reflect on how activists today play into these “symbolic victories.” Instead of spending time and energy revising history, let’s spend time and energy on creating better social and economic outcomes for Indigenous peoples across Canada.
Milena Pappalardo is a first-year social sciences student at Trinity College.