1359 A shaky grasp at the Royal Society

Royally Wronged: The Royal Society of Canada and Indigenous Peoples
by Constance Backhouse, Cynthia E. Milton, Margaret Kovach, and Adele Perry (editors)

Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021
$39.95 / 9780228009030

Reviewed by J.R. (Jim) Miller

Disclosure: the reviewer is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada


Gitxsan educator and activist Cindy Blackstock. McGill University photo

In 2016, Dr. Cindy Blackstock challenged the Royal Society of Canada [RSC] at its annual meeting to face up to its history of relations with Indigenous peoples. Blackstock’s keynote address to the RSC followed a letter from her to the Society in the autumn of 2015 as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] was reporting in which she had “recommend[ed] that the Society educate your members and others in your circle about Duncan Campbell Scott and his role in the Royal Society and actively engage in the implementation of the TRC recommendations as a matter of priority” (p. 16). Blackstock’s letter and address prompted the RSC to create a Truth and Reconciliation Task Force in 2017 that in turn issued a call for papers for a book. The result of that call was the volume of essays that constitute Royally Wronged (p. 5).

Headquarters of the Royal Society of Canada, Ottawa. Photo by Deinocheirus via Wikipedia

The Royal Society of Canada, founded in 1882 at the instigation and with the patronage of the governor general, Lord Lorne, is a scholarly organization of “nearly 2500 Fellows in three academies” (p. 4). Two of the academies, the smaller ones, represent specialists in the humanities and the social sciences, while the third, larger subdivision contains accomplished scientists, natural and biomedical. Fellows are nominated by other Fellows and post-secondary institutions that support the Society. Nominees are screened by evaluation committees composed of Society members, and approved in a vote of Fellows. In recent years another group of younger or more junior scholars has been assembled in a College of New Scholars by a similar process. The RSC, then, is a self-selected, self-perpetuating organization of researchers and artists, mostly but not exclusively from the universities, who declare who is worthy to join them. Within university circles, at least, election to the Society as a Fellow or Scholar is a matter of considerable prestige.

Duncan Campbell Scott (1862-1947) not long before he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada for his poetry. Courtesy Wikipedia

Royally Wronged is organized into four sections. The first two are historical and take the story down to the middle of the twentieth century, and the latter two a group of essays intended to focus on the future. It is clear that the commissioning editors urged authors to devote considerable attention to the role of Duncan Campbell Scott both in the RSC, of which he was president in 1922-23, and in the Department of Indian Affairs, of which he was deputy minister from 1913 until his retirement in 1932. Scott’s election to the Fellowship in 1899 was clearly in recognition of his success as a poet, not at all a commentary on his role as a civil servant. Authors responded to the editors’ urging with enthusiasm and zeal, if not always with precision and accuracy. Dr. Constance Backhouse of the University of Ottawa Law faculty claims that “Scott’s stature owes much to the Royal Society of Canada” (p. 74), a judgment that seems to overstate the RSC’s influence in Canadian life. Scott’s “stature,” or notoriety, today stems from his role in Indian Affairs, not the poetry that got him into the Royal Society. Dr. Carole Gerson, Professor Emerita of English from Simon Fraser University, analyzes the thirteen of Scott’s more than 250 poems that deal with Indigenous themes. Her argument that these Scott poems were ‘answering’ the poems of Pauline Johnson, the Mohawk-English poet and performer active in the first part of Scott’s professional career, is not wholly convincing.

Kamloops Indian Residential School

More serious, though, is another claim that both Backhouse and Gerson make about Scott and his views about Indigenous peoples. Both quote from a supposed 1910 Scott letter that dismissed reports of horrific death rates in the residential schools with the comment: “‘[this] alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared toward the final solution of our Indian Problem’” (pp. 61-2). As the two authors acknowledge in endnotes, there are sufficient problems with this quotation to raise serious questions about its authenticity. First, the term “final solution” was not current in 1910, being associated with the German Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s. Second, no one has been able to locate the original of this supposed letter of Scott’s in the Records of the Department of Indian Affairs in Library and Archives Canada [LAC] in spite of numerous efforts. An inquiry to the archivists at LAC would have yielded the information that an LAC reference archivist provided to another researcher, who wishes to remain anonymous: “Unfortunately, this is a question which comes up on a semi-frequent basis, and for which there is no conclusive answer. Many archivists over the years have attempted to pinpoint this particular letter but to no avail. It appears that this reference has been widely perpetuated in publications and on the internet but without enough information that would allow us to locate it within the archives.” In spite of the dubious nature of this ‘letter,’ Gerson refers to D.C. Scott at “Canada’s Hitler” (p. 89) principally on the strength of it.

Conversations with a Dead Man, a work of creative non-fiction (Douglas & McIntyre, 2013)

Closer examination of the two authors’ use of the supposed Scott letter reveals further problems with the writers’ methods. Gerson, for example, cites a blog on the internet to support her use of the term “Canada’s Hitler” that turns out to be a product of a BC organization called Indigenous Corporate Training. ICT’s contribution on this topic, “The Final Solution – Which Government Used the Term First?” gets a couple of points of residential school history wrong while citing the supposed 1910 letter of Scott. For her part, Backhouse’s note on the letter quotes Mark Abley, the author of a book on Scott titled Conversations with a Dead Man, as saying that he got the phrase “final solution” from “Anthony Hall, who took it from Kevin Annett, who did not provide a proper reference” (p. 77 n.14). It is not clear if Backhouse realizes that Kevin Annett is a former United Church of Canada minister who was stripped of his clerical standing by the United Church in the 1990s. He has been alleging since then an incredible array of sins by the churches that operated residential schools. An obvious question is: should well-established scholars such as Backhouse and Gerson use a quotation from a suspect letter whose provenance and authenticity are undetermined?

Model of the Iroquoian village of Hochelaga, reconstructed in part from descriptions by Jacques Cartier. Model by Michel Cadieux, Wikipedia

Other essays in Royally Wronged also reveal a shaky grasp of the history of Indian Affairs policy and residential schools by some of the authors. RSC Fellow Adele Perry of the University of Manitoba quotes the section of the 1867 constitution that assigns jurisdiction over “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” to the federal government incorrectly (p. 115) and has Scott promoted to the deputy minister position two years before he was (p. 119). (On the other hand, Gerson has him joining the Department of Indian Affairs as a clerk a year before the department was created [p. 91].) College Scholar Cynthia Milton, another of the book’s editors, seems to suggest that “the Hochelaga” were a First Nation rather than the village on the site of present-day Montreal that Jacques Cartier visited in the sixteenth century (p. 159), and gets the spelling of the surname of Canada’s first prime minister and its longest serving minister of Indian Affairs, Sir John A. Macdonald, wrong (p. 164). The people of Hochelaga are referred to by scholars as a part of the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.

Frank Calder, founder of the Nisga’a Tribal Council, outside the Supreme Court of Canada, 1999. Photo by Gary Fiegehen, courtesy Nisga’a Lisims

It is not clear what moved Fellow James Walker, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Waterloo, to describe the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1973 decision in the Calder case as a “split decision” when six of the seven justices found that Aboriginal title existed in Canadian law, though they split into two equal groups on whether or not the Nisga’a’s title still existed, and the seventh found against the Nisga’a on a technical point (p. 185). A group of students in a graduate public history course at Carleton University who were assigned “to research the history of the Royal Society of Canada (RSC) for the ways in which it was implicated in the history of violence against Indigenous people,…” (p. 276) declare Scott to be “the architect of residential schools” when the institutions were in existence as a system well before Scott occupied any position of influence within the Department of Indian Affairs (p. 280). Joanna Quinn, a College Scholar from Western University contends that for a status “Indian” male to graduate from a university was to lose his status, whereas that draconian provision was part of the Indian Act only from 1876 until 1880. From 1880 onward, loss of status was not involuntary for post-secondary graduates and members of the learned professions. They had to apply to be enfranchised (p. 305). One might hope authors associated with an organization such as the Royal Society of Canada would have a better grasp of the basic facts.

TRSC 1895-96. Courtesy AbeBooks

There is a broader problem underlying the authors’ treatment of past Fellows’ writings about Indigenous peoples, though. Many of the authors who contributed to Royally Wronged do not understand earlier literature about Indigenous people or the scholarly context in which it was produced. Dr. Ian Wereley, for example, provides a list of papers focused on Indigenous peoples given at the RSC’s annual meeting and dismisses them as demonstrating “mixtures of curiosity and contempt” (p. 40). One of those presentations was an 1895 paper on “An Iroquois Condoling Council” by the eminent early anthropologist Horatio Hale. The rituals of condoling a group for losses to death and of requickening, or recognizing a successor to someone deceased, were central to Haudenosaunee governance, and over time the ceremonies came to constitute the format within which all Six Nations diplomacy took place. The casual dismissal of Hale’s “An Iroquois Condoling Council” is symptomatic of the lack of awareness of the significance of earlier scholarship that is found in the volume.

L-R: Chief Jim Antoine of the Liidlii Kue First Nation and Judge Thomas Berger, 1975. Courtesy Government of the Northwest Territories

In the era in which the Royal Society was founded and for many decades after its creation research and scholarship about Indigenous peoples was almost nonexistent. One measure of their absence is the fact no Canadian university had a full-time Anthropology faculty member until the University of Toronto hired T.F. McIlwraith in 1925. While there were other part-time anthropologists in government service, such as in the national museum or the geological survey of Canada, academic anthropology simply did not exist. As far as historians were concerned, there was almost no scholarly interest in Indigenous peoples among university faculty, especially in the Anglophone universities, until the 1970s and beyond. As for academic law, the Indian Act prohibition on soliciting or donating money for “an Indian claim” that was on the books from 1927 until 1951 was a deterrent to research on the law and Indigenous peoples. Eminent lawyer Thomas Berger recalled that when he was a law student at the University of British Columbia in the 1950s, he never heard his professors talk about the law as it affected the first peoples: “… when I went to law school in the mid-fifties we never discussed, and the law teachers never discussed, Aboriginal rights and Aboriginal title. We never discussed Indians.”[1] Other social sciences before the middle or late decades of the twentieth century, such as political studies and sociology, also found their research interests elsewhere, in the case of sociologists principally in studies of particular ethnic communities and then of immigration.

Diamond Jenness among Inuinnait, 1916. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of History, Hubert Wilkins 51236, via Kitikmeot Heritage

The pioneering scholars who did make presentations to the Royal Society annual meeting are also faulted by the authors of Royally Wronged for the style of the work they produced. Anthropology papers in the early decades of the RSC’s existence would now be classified as “salvage anthropology” or “salvage ethnography.” The reason for the early fascination with describing the lifeways of Indigenous peoples was the researchers’ assumption that it was essential to record information about the Indigenous peoples because either they were going to die out completely or because, if they did not, their original customs and practices would soon be corrupted by contact with non-Natives. The distinguished anthropologist and Royal Society Fellow Diamond Jenness famously wrote in 1932, in The Indians of Canada, “Doubtless all the tribes will disappear. Some will endure only a few years longer; others, like the Eskimo, may last several centuries.”[2] Franz Boas, the German-educated American anthropologist was motivated more by a thirst to record lifeways before they were modified. But the descriptive approach of the early ethnographers is scorned by Royally Wronged. College Scholar Joanna Quinn, a political scientist, complains that ethnographic research “denied virtually any agency on the part of Indigenous people, and consigned them solely to the status of something like museum exhibits” (p. 307). Had ethnographic research not been present in the Society’s annual meetings, the Royally Wronged authors would have condemned the RSC for ignoring Indigenous peoples completely. When ethnographic research is presented it is criticized as not measuring up to twenty-first-century scholarly standards. Whether those who composed Royally Wronged realize it or not, the scholarship of people like Hale and Jenness was the state of the art in their own times.

John A. Macdonald stamp, 1973

In their eagerness to condemn Duncan Campbell Scott, these authors ignore a critically important point: Scott was a bureaucrat. He did not make the laws, especially the egregious amendments to the Indian Act, although when he was deputy minister he did his best to encourage his political masters to shape legislation as he recommended. But he was charged with carrying out the legislation and policies that the political leaders caused to be passed into law. If we are now expected to hang all the sins of Canadian policy towards First Nations around the neck of Duncan Campbell Scott, does that mean that Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Robert Borden, Arthur Meighen, and William Lyon Mackenzie King — prime ministers under whom Scott served — get a pass on responsibility for the victimization of Indigenous peoples in Canadian law and policy? Surely that would not be appropriate. Surely all Canadians bear some responsibility for the mistreatment to which Indigenous peoples have been subjected.

Twenty-two year old Colten Boushie, shot dead by Gerald Stanley in 2016 on a farm near Biggar, Sask. Courtesy Facebook via AM 650 CKOM Saskatoon

The foregoing criticisms are not meant to suggest that there are no essays of merit in Royally Wronged. In spite of how he interpreted the decision in Calder, historian James Walker contributes a careful, useful survey of historical writing dealing with Indigenous peoples over the last half century. Unfortunately, though, his chapter does not acknowledge the important contributions of New France historian and RSC Fellow Cornelius Jaenen or fully recognize how the books of UBC historical geographer Arthur J. Ray, another Fellow, have revolutionized our understanding of early Canadian, especially fur trade, history. An examination of the “Unmarked Graves” in cemeteries associated with the Brandon residential school does a good job of explaining how complicated and time-consuming the work required to establish that deaths occurred at these schools and their causes (pp. 203-29). And an examination by Reem Bahdi of the University of Windsor Law faculty of the recent Gerald Stanley trial in Saskatchewan in which the farmer was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges is well done, although in light of the detailed book on the topic by University of Toronto Law professor and Royal Society Fellow Kent Roach, Bahdi’s work is not all that original. Essays such as these provide Royally Wronged with some redeeming value, although they do not fully compensate for the shortcomings in many other chapters.

The leadership of the Royal Society of Canada deserves credit for responding to the challenge that Dr. Cindy Blackstock laid down by taking steps to examine the Society’s role in Canada’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples since the 1880s. It is only a shame that the team those leaders set up to research and report on the topic did not do a better job. Is this volume the best way the Royal Society of Canada can contribute to the cause of reconciliation?


J.R. (Jim) Miller. Photo by Liam Richards

J.R. (Jim) Miller is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Saskatchewan. He wrote the first general history of relations between Indigenous peoples and immigrants in Canada, Skyscrapers Hide the Heavens: A History of Native-Newcomer Relations in Canada (1989; 4th edition, 2018); the first history of residential schools in Canada, Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools (1996); the first historical overview of treaties between the Canadian crown and Aboriginal peoples, Compact, Contract, Covenant: Aboriginal Treaty-Making in Canada (2009); and the first historical examination of the reconciliation movement in Canada, Residential Schools and Reconciliation: Canada Confronts Its History (2017). Editor’s note: Jim Miller has also reviewed books by Nancy Dyson & Dan Rubenstein, Arthur Manuel & Ronald Derrickson, and Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail for The Ormsby Review.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster



[1] “Frank Calder and Thomas Berger: A Conversation,” in Hamar Foster, Heather Raven, and Jeremy Webber, eds., Let Right Be Done: Aboriginal Title, the Calder Case, and the Future of Indigenous Rights (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007), p. 43.

[2] Diamond Jenness, The Indians of Canada (7th ed., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977; 1st ed., 1932), p. 264.

Demolition of Fort Qu’Appelle Indian Hospital, 2017. Courtesy CTV News

4 comments on “1359 A shaky grasp at the Royal Society

  1. An excellent and objective review that highlights some of the ideological weaknesses of contemporary academic writing. This is the kind of review that distinguishes The Ormsby Review from other mainstream commentary, and makes it a pleasure to read.

  2. The lack of balance in this review is going to force me to read the book! probably a good thing, but if in the end I think the REVIEW is too slanted, I wont be able to comment in a timely way…So lets see what I find in the book itself…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This