BORN: Quebec City, Quebec • 1 August 1899
DIED: Montreal, Quebec • 30 January 1985
Frank Scott arrived home in 1923 feeling depressed. After four years and two degrees at Oxford, he had returned to Montreal to find the city dull, ugly, and backward. This was undoubtedly a reasonable judgment: compared with mother England, Montreal after the Great War was a drab place indeed.
In arts and architecture, politics and personalities, the city was profoundly colonial from top to bottom. But, ironically, for Scott, improving this unhappy circumstance meant making Canada less, not more like the mother country. In fields as varied as law, politics, and poetry, he would spend the rest of his life working towards this goal.
Scott settled down to a teaching job at Lower Canada College in 1923, but he was restless. He began a law degree the following year at McGill, but initially showed more interest in writing poems than learning the law.
He and fellow student A.J.M. Smith founded The McGill Fortnightly Review, a small, pathbreaking magazine intent on reinventing Canadian poetry in the modernist style. Canadian poetry up to then had been romantic, rigidly Victorian, and imperialistic in outlook.
Through his own verse but also through encouraging the work of others, Scott pursued a modernist, nation¬ alist agenda and, almost single-handedly, changed the way Canadian poets approached their subjects. At the same time, Scott was learning to appreciate the niceties of constitutional law.
In 1928, newly married and now editor of the avant-garde journal The Canadian Mercury, Scott was named professor of federal and constitutional law at the McGill law school. The roles of legal scholar and modernist poet hardly seemed complementary, but for Scott they were each part of a larger project: to develop an independent, vibrant Canadian culture.
The Depression wracked the Canadian economy while Scott was still a young man, and the experience affected him profoundly. His poetry became more socially engaged, and the British socialism he had flirted with a decade before re-emerged in a series of published essays.
Committed to a progressive, socially conscious Canada, Scott, Frank Underhill, and others formed the League for Social Reconstruction in 1931—a group of progressive academics who aimed to create “a social order in which the basic prin¬ ciple regulating production, distribution and service will be the common good rather than private profit.”
These were nearly revolutionary words in the early 1930s, and Scott paid a professional price for his political activism when he was passed over for the deanship of law at McGill several times in the 1940s and 1950s for being too “radical.” In 1933 Scott helped prepare the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation’s Regina Manifesto.
Much of the theoretical socialism that Scott had been pushing found its way into the CCF’s political platform, and eventually a central bank, central economic planning, and medicare would all be adopted by the mainstream parties.His involvement in the CCF confirmed his role near the centre of national politics.
Scott campaigned widely for Canadian neutrality before the Second World War, and was the national chairman of the CCF from 1942 to 1950. But in the 1950s his attention turned increasingly to his home province.
He represented the plaintiffs against the govern¬ ment in the Supreme Court of Canada over Quebec’s infa¬ mous “padlock law”—which gave the provincial government police-state authority to quell leftist dissent—and he emerged as the leading English-Canadian interpreter of French- Canadian politics and culture.
He continued to publish poetry and to translate the best French-Canadian verse into English. All the while, he remained a leading Canadian legal scholar and the braintrust of the national CCF.In 1961 the long-delayed appointment as McGill’s dean of law was finally his.
He spent much of the decade as a member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a project that defined the terms of political debate in Canada for the next quarter-century. In the 1970s and early 1980s Scott continued to write poems and political pieces, his commitment to equality and social justice evident in both.
When Frank Scott died in 1985, there was no great achievement for which he alone was responsible, no climactic moment when he alone made the difference. Instead, his was a lifetime of influence: in law, politics, and poetry, Scott led his country.