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Biography & Autobiography Historical

Conversations with a Dead Man

The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott

by (author) Mark Abley

Douglas & McIntyre
Initial publish date
Oct 2013
Historical, Native American
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2013
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2013
    List Price

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As a poet and citizen deeply concerned by the Oka Crisis, the Idle No More protests and Canada's ongoing failure to resolve First Nations issues, Montreal author Mark Abley has long been haunted by the figure of Duncan Campbell Scott, known both as the architect of Canada's most destructive Aboriginal policies and as one of the nation's major poets. Who was this enigmatic figure who could compose a sonnet to an "Onondaga Madonna" one moment and promote a "final solution" to the "Indian problem" the next?

In this passionate, intelligent and highly readable enquiry into the state of Canada's troubled Aboriginal relations, Abley alternates between analysis of current events and an imagined debate with the spirit of Duncan Campbell Scott, whose defence of the Indian Residential School and belief in assimilation illuminate the historical roots underlying today's First Nations' struggles.

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

"As Canadian biography deepens as a form, it will need books as intrepid, incisive, and compassionate, as this one, and before long Conversations with a Dead Man may be seen as pioneering."

Charles Foran, author of Mordecai

"...a bold choice of narrative style for a historical biography and one the author pulls off well."

The Eastern Door

"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 analyzes Scott's poetry and policies, struggling with the paradox of his life: how could a poet write so empathetically about Aboriginal people and consign their children to merciless assimilation, abuse and death?...Abley's act of radical empathy makes it harder to turn the page on a chapter of our history we might otherwise slam shut."


"Conversations between them are interspersed with well-researched and historically accurate accounts of Scott's activities. All of Abley's speculations about Scott in the fictive parts are based on solid evidence...careful research...Abley's original approach to presenting and understanding the issues -- through the prism of one man -- reveals much but also suggests much remains to be revealed. Agree or disagree with the conclusions, this well-crafted and engaging account makes good reading."

Literary Review of Canada

"...eloquent and compelling..."

Journal of Canadian Poetry

"Abley has found a creative way to deliver a haunting history can't help but keep turning the pages, wanting desperately, like Abley, to gain clarity on Scot''s actions. Commendably, Abley has addressed a highly charged question in a balanced, compassionate manner."

Montreal Review of Books

"Resurrecting Scott in the pages of the book involved having his life-like 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...a book that should by rights help redress a long-standing imbalance in the study of Canadian history..."

Montreal Gazette

"Required reading...a necessary book."

The Next Chapter

"Two books by Montreal writers access 'the other side' in fresh, imaginative ways...Mark Abley's Conversations with a Dead Man summons the ghost of a famous poet to answer for his part in the destruction of First Nations communities. Both books increase our capacity for wonder and empathy, without offering easy answers to a spate of questions raised...Ingenious...this rich, resonant work should galvanize readers into action against the awful legacy of attempted genocide. Two powerful books, genre-benders, nourishing, provocative: read them both to escape surface noise, and enter into the private obsessions of two fine minds committed to the service of ambitious themes."

Rover Arts

Mark Abley has undertaken a daunting task: reconciling the Duncan Campbell Scott whose pen inscribed the cultures of Canada’s First Nations in justly celebrated verse, and the same Duncan Campbell Scott who, as the overseer of residential schools and head of Indian Affairs, attempted to erase those same cultures from the pages of history. Abley, a fine poet himself, turns Scott, the bogeyman, into a man of flesh-and-blood, by—in a fine twist—making him into a revenant to be grappled with in regular visitations. The conceit works admirably. Reading Conversations with a Dead Man, I felt as if I had been waylaid, not by a dour Ottawa bureaucrat, by an Ancient Mariner with the most urgent of tales to tell.”

Taras Grescoe, author of Bottomfeeder and Straphanger

"Abley creates an extremely interesting and readable scenario -- invoking a Dickensian-like visit of a ghost from the past...deftly reveals a dark and not very well known period of Canadian history..."

The Link, CBC

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