“Fugitive Visions”: Cultural Pseudomemory and the Death of the Indigenous Child in the Indian Poems of Duncan Campbell Scott

Julia A. Boyd

Abstract


Whether describing a fictional child’s decease in the Canadian wilds or the painfully real death rates in Indian Residential Schools, poetry and policy entangle in Duncan Campbell Scott’s depictions of Indigenous child mortality. The Confederation Group poet-bureaucrat is perhaps most infamous for his architectural role in the IRS system: it was his 1920 amendment to the Indian Act that legislated mandatory attendance at the chronically underfunded and inherently violent institutions. Yet the relationship between Scott’s responses to consistent reports documenting horrific rates of death and disease in IRS and his insistence that Canadian poets were the stewards of cultural memory for the young colonial nation has largely escaped critique. This paper makes this relationship visible by investigating how Scott’s characterization of Indigenous child mortality participates in the network of “administrative fictions” that governed IRS policy during and beyond Scott’s tenure. Scott’s depictions of dead, dying, and neglected Indigenous children reveal a fiction of neglect that undermines divisions between his so-called “Indian poems” and early-twentieth-century Aboriginal Affairs policy. This fiction implicitly undermines critiques of the IRS system by constructing an historically distant narrative in which the Indigenous child is always already subjected to the physical violence of residential schools within his/her own community. It fabricates a cultural pseudomemory for Anglo audiences in which poetry functions as an administrative technology — a masked violence reverberating at the literary substratum of the bureaucratic fictions which continue to obscure and forestall justice for Indigenous families and communities in Canada.

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