By Robin Benger
So many worlds to explore. So little time to do it.
James Cullingham may have bitten off more than its possible to chew with Two Dead White Men, the eye-catching but somewhat misleading title of his ambitious and fascinating book. Nevertheless, it is a great read, an adventurous journey and a brave exploration of two of the most interesting, and contradictory characters of 20th century colonial politics.
Duncan Campbell Scott as a poet in Canada, Soustelle as an intellectual and ethnologist in France. They were both given unachievable tasks of central importance in the development of settler-indigenous relationships in two of the most interesting countries in the world.
Cullingham’s magic lies somewhere between the serious social scientist, the diarist, the outdoorsman and the carnival juggler.
It is impossible to look back on the treachery and tragedy of the Canadian First Nations story without laying enormous blame at the feet of a man like Scott, who tried as much as any white Canadian to solve “the Indian problem”, as he saw it.
Extinction was an option, as Cullingham writes. In 1921, as the equivalent of Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs, Scott told Parliament he wanted to ensure that there were no more Indians in the body politic in 50 years, lethally impaled on the twin forks of Christianity and Civilization. From his perspective, the residential school would drive the savage out of the child and create a civilized, obedient Canadian.
And yet this was a man capable of some of the most soaring verses in Canadian history.
As Earth abandons herself
To the Sun and the thrust of the lightning.
Quiet were all the leaves of the poplars,
Breathless the air under their shadow
As Keejigo spoke of these things to her heart
In the beautiful speech of the Salteaux.
Cullingham compares Scott to Jacques Soustelle, a brilliant French intellectual who became obsessed with the Mesoamerican Peoples of Mexico, built a Museum, fought for and against De Gaulle, and eventually crashed out as Governor General of an Algeria at war with France. He left a contradictory legacy with fervent support for Israel and the apartheid government of South Africa.
This comparison is both the blessing and curse of Cullingham’s book. While it’s a fascinating linkage with many common conditions, it’s a roll of the dice, and, to this reader at least, there was effort involved in wondering why I was reading all the intense detail of Soustelle’s life when I kept wanting to get back to the doomed contradictions of the Canadian.
What is Soustelle doing in the book? France, as an uninterrupted, well-anchored Old World Empire, seems like another creature to the young, intrusive Canada, gingerly and clumsily setting its faltering feet on a New World, a World that, in the 1800’s and early 1900’s didn’t belong to it at all. Nevertheless, thanks to his skilled fascination with the world of French ideas and its towering champions (Camus, Sartre et al), Cullingham pulls it off.
On top of all of this Cullingham spices up the whole affair with literary postcards of his own explorations in Mexico, France, and along some of the same Great Rivers of Canada paddled by the dreamy-eyed, scheming Scott himself. Occasionally, being the reporter he has been, he pops up, Zelig-like, at Buffy Sainte Marie’s concert-in-judgment: and, in June 2008, at Prime Minister Harper’s apology in Parliament to Canada’s Indigenous people for the abuses suffered in the residential schools system. And oddly, he has inserted the best photograph of The Queen, blurred and rain-splattered, that this writer has ever seen.
It’s a very ambitious book and a highly accessible and praiseworthy one. If you have a very bright 15 year-old in love with the world of letters, ideas and history this would be the best birthday or Christmas book to get. It is in itself the hub of a multitude of ideologies, culture, histories and canoe tripping.
Cullingham, as author John S Milloy says, has set himself “a bold challenge”. And completed it masterfully.
The book is significantly well produced with extensive direct excerpts from both lead actors.
One may be left with the impression that the future of Canada’s First Nations policies are an impossible Gordian knot of irreconcilable complexity: that France’s tangled record in Africa is more likely to get worse rather than better…but also, that any victories in either field would be sweet, rare and very very hard won.
Robin Benger is an award-winning filmmaker (“Madiba”: “Rwanda: Autopsy of a Genocide”) and author of “A Canadian in God’s Country” and the upcoming “Adventures of Rategan”
Two Dead White Men – Duncan Campbell Scott, Jacques Soustelle and the Failure of Indigenous Policy (Seneca Press 2022)
author James Culllingham (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Foreword Winona Wheeler
Afterword John S. Milloy
Available in print and eBook editions from Seneca Campus Store, Tamarack Productions and Amazon.