Mark Abley has had a good professional relationship with that fickle woman Lady Luck—he’s been at the right place at the right time so that his talent as a poet, journalist, non-fiction writer and editor has received broad recognition.
But just as Montreal-based Abley, 57, had completed his latest work in October—a book-length examination of the Jekyll and Hyde legacy of Canadian poet/bureaucrat Duncan Campbell Scott—he got to know Lady Luck’s sister, Miss Fortune.
Abley finished the manuscript in late October—the same week Douglas & McIntyre, the largest Canadian-owned publisher, went bankrupt.
‘The Canadian book publishing industry is not in a good condition and my publisher is still under bankruptcy protection. It’s just driving me crazy.”
Abley is now a creditor, owed money for the work he’s completed, and hoping for a corporate rescue that will enable the book to be published.
Based on headline news about Idle No More—the nationwide protest by aboriginal people demanding more compassion and assistance from the federal government—the timing couldn’t be better for this examination of Scott’s life.
Abley, who writes the bi-monthly Watchwords column on language for The Gazette and is an acquisitions editor at McGill-Queens University Press, was intrigued by Scott—one of Canada’s leading poets in the early part of the last century. He was good enough to have merited 11 pages in the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, edited by Margaret Atwood.
But Scott had a day job. As superintendent and deputy minister in the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, he advocated the assimilation of Canada’s First Nations and implemented the now-condemned residential school policy.
Native children were separated from their families, punished for speaking their languages, and often were victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Yet Scott wrote glowingly about native culture in his poetry even as he sought to crush them.
“I had grown up studying Canadian literature in university and knew Scott as a pretty good poet of a previous generation,” Abley said.
“I had no idea his name was now mud. I began to look into him and discovered subject matter for a great book.”
The publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, was expecting a straight-forward biography but Abley recalls that because Scott’s life was so regimented—on paper—he needed another approach.
“He was the son of a Methodist minister and was very upright in his behaviour. He joined the civil service at age 17, worked for the same department for the next 52 years, listened to classical music in the evening and wrote poetry. He had no recorded love affairs, was never sued and was not an alcoholic.”
But the policies he implemented, designed to assimilate aboriginals, have since been condemned as tragic errors—sources of many of today’s ills that afflict native people.
“I decided I had to bring him back to life so I could confront him with all these questions rolling around in my head,” Abley recalled.
“The premise of the book is that I’m sitting in my living room in Pointe Claire and I look up, and there’s the ghost of Duncan Campbell Scott, who has won permission from whomever rules the afterlife (unspecified) to talk to a Canadian poet and journalist who would be able to clear his name.
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“Scott sincerely believed that Indians should become ‘civilized.’ He enforced the laws that made the Plains Cree Sun Dance and the Haida Potlatch illegal, things that were essential to their culture and identity, illegal.”
The first chapter is a conversation, and the next eight combine the results of Abley’s research and a concluding conversation, for a total of nine dialogues.
It’s a work of creative non-fiction, titled Conversation With a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott, and normally the timing of its completion would have been ideal.
Should Abley resume his relationship with Lady Luck, the book could be published before the year is out.
Born in England, Abley is the son of church organist Harry and elementary schoolteacher Mary. They immigrated to western Canada when he was two and lived in several cities before Abley won a Rhodes scholarship as a literature student at the University of Saskatchewan.
During his three years at St. John’s College, Oxford University, Abley met Ann Beer at the Oxford Poetry Society, and they later married. She was studying at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, where she obtained a PhD. They later moved to Montreal in part because it seemed like an “intriguing, exotic place.”
“In my mind, I figured we could always go down the 401 if we needed to, but as soon as we arrived here, we fell in love with it.
“It was really exciting and I started writing for publications like Saturday Night magazine.”
His first book, Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies, was published in 1986. With Ann pregnant with their first of two daughters, Abley applied for a job at The Gazette in 1987 just when it was hiring staff for the new Sunday paper.
Abley became one of its leading writers, the go-to staffer when it came to handling complex and sensitive issues. He set a high standard as book-review and literary editor and was awarded a National Newspaper Award for critical writing.
He left The Gazette in 2003 to pursue his own writing, which includes three books of poetry, two children’s books and several books of non-fiction. In 2005, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which resulted in his book The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English, published in 2008. His book Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, was awarded Spain’s LiberPress Prize in 2009.
A year later, he was named the first writer in residence at the library in Pointe Claire, where the Ableys live and raised their daughters Kate, 25, and Megan, 19.
Abley credits part of his standing in the publishing community to the runaway success of the illustrated book on the Ice Storm of January 1998, which sold about 90,000 copies in English and 30,000 in French.
“Most of the money went to charity, so it did not make me rich, but what it did was reintroduce me to the world of books, and the publisher at McClelland & Stewart asked me the next year to write a book on Stories From the Ice Storm.”
That book was also considered a success and after winning a Canada Council grant led to his taking a year off to write about Spoken Here, including Abenaki and Yiddish. It led to his winning the Guggenheim.
“It’s the one thing I’ve done that’s been published that I care about more than anything else I’ve ever done.”
It started with a Gazette article.
“I went out to a village called
Odenak (30 kilometres east of Sorel), one of two small communities where the Abenaki people live. I met Cecile Wawanolett, one of the last speakers of the Abenaki language. At the age of 80 she was teaching a course in the language, desperately trying to keep it alive.
“The building where we met was the old convent school, the very place she had been beaten by nuns for speaking her own language.
“And since Cecile died in 2006, I don’t know if there are any fluent speakers left.”
The book examines what disappears when a language fades away.
As acquisitions editor at McGill Queen’s, Abley is expected to bring 20 manuscripts a year to print, working with writers to make sure the text is good enough to be handed over for copy editing.
He is most excited about a book to be released this winter called Bilingual Being: My Life as a Hyphen, by Kathleen Saint Onge, who was raised in Quebec City in a mixed French-English family.
“It’s a wonderful, personal reflection about growing up in Quebec City in the 1960s and the inner divisions and joys that come from having two languages rolling around inside one’s head.”
“That’s the kind of thing I’m able to handle that gives me lots of pleasure.”