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History Native American

Conversations With a Dead Man

Indigenous Rights and the Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott

by (author) Mark Abley

Stonehewer Books
Initial publish date
Feb 2024
Native American, Political, Literary
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2013
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2024
    List Price

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The second edition of Mark Abley’s acclaimed creative biography, revised and expanded with a new introduction by the author.

When he died in 1947, Duncan Campbell Scott was revered as one of his country’s finest poets and honoured as a devoted civil servant. Today, because of his work as head of the Department of Indian Affairs, he's widely considered one of history's worst Canadians. When word of this reaches Scott's ghost, he returns to the land of the living to ask poet and journalist Mark Abley to clear his name, and in the ensuing research, Abley learns of a man who could somehow write vibrant poems about Indigenous people in one moment, and in another institute policies designed to destroy Indigenous culture and force assimilation.

With intelligence, moral ferocity, and a hunger for truth, Abley delves into Scott’s professional and personal lives while also exploring the hostile government policies—including the residential school system—that damaged and continue to damage the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people. By mixing traditional non-fiction with an imagined debate between the author and Scott’s ghost, Conversations with a Dead Man makes it clear that “the villain was a man, and his nation is our nation. Abley’s act of radical empathy makes it harder to turn the page on a chapter of our history we might otherwise slam shut” (Andrew Stobo Sniderman, Maclean’s).

About the author

Mark Abley was born in Leamington Spa, England, in 1955. From age six to twenty he lived in Lethbridge and Saskatoon. After winning a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and received his Master of Arts degree in English Language and Literature. He and his wife live in Montreal.

For the past seven years, Mark Abley has been a contributing editor to Macleans's and a regular writer for Saturday Night, CBC Radio's "Ideas" and The Times Literary Supplement. He has also written for the Globe and Mail, Canadian Literature, The Listener, and the New Statesman.

Mark Abley's profile page

Editorial Reviews

Praise for the First Edition:

“Abley has produced something seemingly inconceivable: an intelligent, absorbing and, yes, entertaining book about an infamous Canadian villain who oversaw residential schools at the height of their brutality toward Aboriginal peoples. Abley is a poet, which makes him the perfect biographer of another poet, Duncan Campbell Scott, who happened to have had a day job for over 50 years in the Department of Indian Affairs … Abley resists the urge to discard Scott as a racist imbecile. The villain was a man, and his nation is our nation. Abley’s act of radical empathy makes it harder to turn the page on a chapter of our history we might otherwise slam shut.”
—Andrew Stobo Sniderman, Maclean’s

“Compelling … creative … probing … One can’t help but keep turning the pages, wanting desperately, like Abley, to gain clarity on Scott’s actions. Commendably, Abley has addressed a highly charged question in a balanced, compassionate manner. By considering Scott’s plausible role as a scapegoat and comparing him to his contemporaries, he contextualizes the civil servant’s vision, yet never condones it, maintaining a critical eye throughout. All this he does with utmost regard for Canada’s First Nations.”
—Kimberly Bourgeois, Montreal Review of Books

“Resurrecting Scott in the pages of the book involved having his lifelike ghost materialize at random intervals in the author’s present-day home. Intent on restoring his posthumous reputation, he’s visible and audible only to his host, who gets drafted into the role of an extremely skeptical Boswell; highly charged and brilliantly rendered conversations ensue. A potentially gimmicky device turns out to be an ingenious choice, drawing the reader into a subject that might otherwise have looked like impossibly heavy going.”
—Ian McGillis, Montreal Gazette

“I love this book. I love the idea that Mark Abley wants answers from Scott. Why did he write such lovely, romantic and paternalistic poetry and prose about Indians? Why was a civilized, educated, refined artist developing, fine-tuning, enacting and enforcing such horrendous policies and laws that violated every religious, moral and ethical sensibility? Abley brings weight and dimension to Scott. I heard his words and understood his passions. In the end, I saw a pitiable man. A shadow of a man. Thanks to Abley, he was no longer a cardboard figure to me, representing all that was and is wrong with Canada and its Indian policies.”
—Daniel David (Mohawk), journalist, broadcaster, writer

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