Discovering ‘Foundations and Progress’ : An Intergenerational Journey of Truth and Reckoning
By: Vanessa Scott
Vanessa (she/her) is a writer and 4th generation settler descendant of a family that engaged in marine missionary work for the United Church along the entire British Columbia coast from the early 1900s to 1960. In 2012, she inherited a box of previously unseen materials from her great grandfather (Captain Rev Robert C. Scott), which launched a decade of research and reckoning with her ancestors’ roles in colonization and residential schools. Her 100+ years of first-hand documents contain unique insights into the colonial mindset and one family’s intergenerational effort to confront this dark legacy and break the patterns of colonialism that get handed down from one generation to the next. She is writing about her reconciliation journey and document repatriation in collaboration with First Nations survivors and exploring what it means to have a
sense of belonging to this land as a descendant of residential school staff and missionaries. Her intention in sharing this story and materials is to help expose and challenge the ongoing crisis of
the settler colonial mindset and advocate for etuaptmumk/two-eyed seeing as a better path forward. She hopes her story is a guide to Canadians and youth who also are questioning their identities and connection to place, and for all of us who must face truth in order to change and move forward honourably. She lives on Vancouver Island, BC, on the territory of the K’omoks First Nation.
Ten years ago, I inherited an old cardboard box that contained a lost collection of documents from my Christian missionary great grandfather, Reverend Captain R.C. Scott. What I discovered in this box changed my life and set me off on an incredible journey of reckoning with our collective colonial history, my own identity and, ultimately, with the meaning of truth and reconciliation.
This dusty time capsule had laid dormant and closed for two generations, over 62 years. It had been forgotten after Scott’s death in 1960, when it was tucked away in a storage locker. Five decades later, an unknown great-aunt on a distant branch of the family tree died. An unlikely chain of events and emails brought it to me, as the last person alive in R.C.’s family line.
But once in my hands, the box revealed a string of mysteries, clues and questions that compelled me to follow this old paper trail on a one-of-a-kind quest for understanding. What I discovered, everything that I unlearned, and all the people I met along the way, eventually forced me to change almost everything I thought I knew or believed about my family, my country, the past and our future.
I discovered not only family secrets, but Canadian secrets that now must be told.
* * *
After an anticipation-filled drive home with the box on my passenger seat, I finally sat down with it on my living room floor, breathlessly curious, hoping simply for a treasure trove of insight into my Scott family’s origins on the B.C. coast.
Dented, with torn edges and banged-up corners, the box had scuffed red warning stickers and was labelled `Handle with Care,’ as it had originally contained glass bottles of medical solvent. But the warning remained uncannily accurate for the delicate archival papers it now contained – and especially these papers’ explosive content. I never imagined it could contain such enormous possibilities, for both hell and healing, and also matter so much to so many other people beyond myself.
Under a crinkly layer of yellowing 1960s newsprint, I found layer after layer of typewritten papers, journal pages, newspaper clippings, parchment-thin sermon manuscripts, private letters that were 70 to 120 years old, tucked into their original envelopes. There were also dozens of black and white photographs, slides and reams of negatives. While I was fascinated to see pictures of R.C. and his son Bob – the grandfather whom I had never met, but about whom I had heard many stories – I was overwhelmed with emotion as I encountered so many never-before-seen photos of my most beloved relatives, now gone: my grandmother as a lovely young woman and my father as a sweet-looking baby and happy child.
I continued carefully excavating layers, digging down to the bottom of the box, certain there must be a final hidden gem. My heart pounded with excitement when I lifted out a dark red mahogany binder sheathed in protective plastic. On the cover was a black-and-white cut-out photo of my great grandfather, his arm outstretched to shake the hand of someone not shown in the image. Of course, he is standing on the wide wooden planks of a dock.
After I opened this stiff old binder, I noticed the 1955 copyright symbol, quickly scanned the table of contents, and realized it was a full manuscript, complete with a hand-drawn map of the B.C. coast showing lighthouses, work camps, Indigenous villages and the locations of Indian residential schools, with accompanying photographs. This part-history, part-autobiography, entitled Foundations and Progress, included fascinating and deeply personal descriptions of why and how my great grandfather first became a missionary and arrived in B.C., as well as detailed accounts of the province’s early 20th century coastal resource frontier, missionary fields, Indian hospitals and much more.
While I knew R.C. had published a book about his mentor in 1948, entitled My Captain Oliver: A Story of Two Missionaries on the B.C. Coast, this end-of-life manuscript and the papers stored along with it were the most unfiltered, raw and personal of all his writings. After he died, R.C.’s second wife donated many of his private papers, including several decades worth of logbooks, to archives maintained by the United Church of Canada, the City of Vancouver, the Royal B.C. Museum, the UBC School of Theology and the B.C. Maritime Museum.
Like my father before me, I would eventually pour through these archives, too, finding more pieces of the puzzle of who R.C. really was, what he believed, and why he did what he did.
But the contents of this forgotten box were different from all the rest of the boxes in the official archives. It seemed as if someone – maybe R.C. himself – had chosen not to leave this specific material with church or government authorities.
These papers revealed much more than just a chronology of R.C.’s motivations, fears, questions and hopes, from his time as a B.C. marine missionary beginning in 1913, through two world wars, and into the early 1950s. Alongside philosophical and spiritual musings, and passionate pleas to God for guidance, he wrote about his anger at the hypocrisies of the Canadian and B.C. governments and the Christian churches serving white and Indigenous citizens, and documented rapacious natural resource extraction and the exploitation of workers at the dawn of the industrial age.
Like the great grandson of Dr Peter Henderson Bryce, who likewise inherited a box of his famous forebear’s writings a year earlier, in 2011, I became convinced, in reading through these documents, that a more fascinating, urgent and complex story existed beyond the one I had previously known, and feared, about my ancestor.
Unlike most non-Indigenous Canadians, I never had the option to ‘not know’ about the injustices of colonization and residential schools because the lives of generations of my ancestors, as Christian missionaries and staff, were inextricably linked with these institutions.
R.C. and his first wife Amelia, my great grandmother, had served the United Church on the B.C. coast in a mission field that ranged from Gibson’s Landing in the south to Haida Gwaii in the north. It included all of Vancouver Island at various points during R.C.’s religious career.
But the knowledge that has always been the hardest for me to accept is that he eventually became a principal in two United Church-run residential schools: first at Coqualeetza (1933-1944) on Sto:lo territory, and then at Alberni (1944-1947) on the territory of the Tseshaht Nation. My father had only ever spoken about small pieces of this history with me. He died in 2008, when I was 22-years-old, and before I had learned enough to ask him all the questions that I would have today, knowing what I now know.
Until I read my great grandfather’s words in 2012, I had assumed R.C. could only have held these institutional roles if he was a fanatic, a monster, a child molester or genocidal accomplice — a racist who must have believed and spread hideously destructive ideas.
But I had to know more. I felt driven to uncover the truth by a mix of curiosity, dread and love. I committed myself to finishing the voyage of discovery into our family history which my father began the year I was born but never completed. While religion was not passed down in my family, a love for the ocean and writing certainly was.
In 1988 my father, Robert C. Scott III, re-traced part of our family’s marine missionary route, sailing up the B.C. coast to interview residential school survivors and other First Nations representatives who knew my family. With their permission, he began to uncover this dark history. My father left behind his own unpublished book manuscript, which he dedicated to me but then abandoned in 1993, along with interview transcripts and audio tapes that I later found in my grandmother’s crawlspace. I discovered she had also stored select pieces of her own writing that drive to the heart of my story of truth and reconciliation.
Starting on this journey from a place of curiosity, I travelled through shock, disbelief, shame, guilt and even greater love. To my surprise, I came to recognize myself in my ancestors’ words. In the end, I know truth-telling is what my great grandfather and the rest of my family really wanted.
* * *
In the opening of his unpublished book, when he is about to first set sail, my Dad wrote:
Because of Vanessa, I felt an obligation to tell [the family story], to find out more about us, and in so doing, perhaps, grow a little myself. It was a thrilling prospect to be on the verge of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that no one else could have, and to know that if everything worked out as planned, I would be carrying on a tradition of sharing and give the family something to be proud of. But even more exciting was the feeling that I was about to become, once again, a stranger in a strange land.
My part in this multi-generational story is not about being a stranger in a strange land but, to the contrary, moving through this ancestral experience towards a greater sense of belonging, kinship and homecoming, which I am still discovering.
Major rifts in Canadian culture made me more determined than ever to understand my inheritance and find my place in the unfolding arc of history. In particular, three events in 2012 drove my decision to finally read through all of my family’s first-hand accounts of colonization and the fraught relationships between settlers and First Nations: the founding of the Idle No More movement for Indigenous rights; the Harper government’s omnibus bills that stripped environmental protections to streamline industrial development on Indigenous lands; and my first-hand experience with this new wave of frontier development that continues to polarize and define our country’s politics as much today as it did 150 years ago.
Our society’s political, environmental and natural resource conflicts, infrastructure failures and compulsion towards unsustainable land use all arise from a common origin — the flawed concepts of progress and cultural superiority unleashed by colonial settlement. I wanted to excavate these warped foundations and reckon with the worldview of this era in which my great-grandfather lived and bore witness.
The origin myth of my family – that I am descended from a courageous, good hearted and spiritually enlightened, seafaring captain who was beloved by all and could do no harm – and the origin myth of my nation as a fair, peaceful country built by good intentions are both wrong.
But my great-grandfather was not the evil villain that I had long assumed him to be.
During the 10 years after I began unpacking that box, I learned more about residential schools and I also came to understand how Canada still relies on idealistic, complicated and flawed human beings like my great grandfather to do its dirty work. I also learned that my father and I would not have existed were it not for one of the residential schools where my grandparents met and married.
Similarly, this country, and the wealth of the Canadian economy as we know it and on which we all rely, would not exist today if it weren’t for institutions and policies like residential schools. Canada was fueled into existence by cultural genocide, land dispossession and rapid industrial development.
The frontier continues to expand. But will it do so with a recognition of Indigenous autonomy and Two-Eyed Seeing, or continue repeating the mistakes and lies of the past?
My family pilgrimage to bring our truth to light spanned four generations linked by blood, the ocean and the written word. Each step of my journey and theirs was compelled by love, idealism, mistakes and necessity. As one survivor of one of the residential schools where my ancestors worked told me in 2018, after I disclosed to her my family origins: “You have to keep speaking and sharing what you feel about this history of residential schools. If you don’t, you’ll be trapped there too.”