January 18, 1917 Night at the Club Part 3

January 18, 1917

This is the third part of my journal entry about the night at the Arts and Letters Club . You can read the second part of the entry here.

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After Dr MacCallum’s introduction, Duncan Campbell Scott stood up and walked over to the fireplace and rested his hand upon the mantel.

“Gentlemen, I thank you for your fine welcome.” He took his hand off the mantle. I believe he realized that because of the mantel’s height, it made his pose look awkward and vaudevillian. This was certainly no vaudeville show, that was to be later in the evening.

“It is such a pleasure to be here with such learned men here in Toronto! Ottawa is such a bore with its bureaucrats. I came down on the train earlier today. I shall not bore you with Ottawa’s war efforts or the re-building of Parliament. Instead, as a man of the arts and letters, I shall read from my new book of poetry and talk to you about another grave problem plaguing our Dominion, the ‘Indian Problem’. ”

It was difficult to hear Scott. He was at the front in the court room and his voice did not carry well through the sounds of scraping chairs and  persistent coughing. I did manage to make out the title of his poem, “The Half-Breed Girl”. I was familiar with it; I had read it a few weeks ago in the reading room of the public library. It was in his new book, published late last year. The main saving grace of this poem was that it wasn’t too long, unlike much of the incessant romantic tripe that passes for poetry these days. I knew that T.S. Eliot’s poetry was having an influence on me. I’d never read a poem the same way again.

Scott started into the first stanza:

She is free of the trap and the paddle,
The portage and the trail,
But something behind her savage life
Shines like a fragile veil

I knew these words so I could follow along through the noise. I did not listen to the rest of the poem because I already had the effect of the poem.  And there is nothing more boring that listening to a poet reading his own poems at a dinner function. It is a license to let one’s own mind wander. Once Scott finished,  he was met with a muted applause that barely supplemented the persistent coughing. With that poetic episode complete, he commenced his talk. I could tell he was a little too warm by the fireplace. He had sweat on his brow that reflected the electrical light from above. From where I was, I couldn’t help but imagine that his balding head looked like an electric bulb that was about to burn out. He stepped forward, away from the fireplace, for the next part of his delivery.  Once the coughing subsided, he began with a changed voice that had an odd authoritative resonance to it. This voice was different than the tone he used as a poet. It was like a different man was speaking. I am sure this was the voice he used to pass pronouncements as a bureaucrat.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone. Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question.”

His talk continued for another twenty minutes. Men, like these, could speak for hours when given the opportunity, but when the coughing was accompanied by the occasional belch, and the men start to pay more attention to the bottles being passed around, he began to conclude his speech. I was in the back, paying more attention to the lighting of my pipe and the repeated replenishing of my glass; the bottle passed by me twice during his speech and was about to come around for the third time. Bloody bureaucrats at their desks, sending men off to war and stamping out races. All in the name of principles and the superior British way.

Dr MacCallum kindly thanked him, and the club was on to the next item of business: the unveiling of the club portrait.

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