Historian Bob Beal says people in his profession are careful not to impose modern moral standards on the past and don’t focus on assigning blame, but his address to those attending the conference in Edmonton raised hard questions about why the system of residential schools continued for so long in Canada and even pointed a finger at one historical figure as bearing significant responsibility for it.
“In 1909, everybody knew … that the residential schools were not working by any measure of success. They knew more than that. They knew that the schools were causing the deaths of children, literally, mainly from tuberculosis,” Mr. Beal said.
One of the major reasons the system continued in Canada was a man named Duncan Campbell Scott, Mr. Beal said. “In the history of Canadian residential schools, Duncan Campbell Scott looms very large.”
Scott was a celebrated Canadian poet and director of Indian Education. In 1913, Scott became deputy minister of the department of Indian Affairs, where he wielded a lot of power. “Scott was a racist by the standards of his own day,” Beal said. “Scott believed, literally, that savagery ran in Indian blood. It was inherited. It was genetic. That’s different from a lot of his contemporaries who were very much cultural supremists,” said Mr. Beal.
This brand of racism, Mr. Beal theorizes, meant that Scott didn’t care about First Nations people. “You couldn’t do anything about their blood unless they intermarried and diluted that savage element in the blood. He wrote that. He believed that. So he didn’t care,” Mr. Beal said. “So the residential school system that in 1909 everybody knew was awful, that residential school system stayed in place. It stayed in place beyond Scott’s retirement in 1932.”