Ralston Saul's imagined country
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 18 October 2008)

There's something admirable, possibly even heroic, in the earnest anger of John Ralston Saul as he bangs away at the theme of his book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Viking). But then, he's a man with a peculiar mission.

He wants to transform our most fundamental ideas about the way Canada has developed. He believes we should see ourselves as "a metis civilization," dominated by beliefs absorbed from our aboriginal experience. We wrongly assume that our national life springs from Judeo-Christian morality, Greek democracy, British government, French as well as British law, etc. But that assumption is misguided. Saul insists that the underlying currents of Canada are indigenous. Unconsciously perhaps, we organize our thinking around aboriginal concepts of peace and fairness. Unless we accept this interpretation of history we will continue to misunderstand our reality.

It's an appealing idea. Many of us would like to imagine that Canadians have a unique way of life. We would also be delighted to learn that it came to us as a gift from, ironically, the very people we have often robbed and mistreated.

Unfortunately, Saul doesn't begin to make a case for this notion. His history is shaky, his examples questionable, his self-confidence unwarranted. His thesis is further burdened by leaden prose and clumsy argument.

He makes a great deal of the many marriages of Indians and Europeans, beginning in the 17th century. This history apparently has made us much more tolerant, so that (Saul says) we Canadians are now untroubled by intermarriage between different ethnic or religious groups. "This cannot be measured, but the resulting society shows the effect," he says. It can't be measured because, so far as we know, it's in many cases not true. Furthermore, he doubts the research that shows, in ancient parish records, that intermarriage was less common than he believes. Records don't tell the whole story, he insists. His conclusions rely mainly on his imagination.

In one potentially fascinating passage he tells us that in the earliest days of Canada poor immigrant men from Normandy or Scotland "married up" when they were accepted by relatively prosperous aboriginal brides. They would then be better fed, dressed and housed. An interesting thought, but how often did that happen? Again he tells us we must "step back from the idea of measurement," implying that he hasn't found research to fit his theories.

He has great difficulty showing us how aboriginal attitudes affect public life in modern Canada. The Suez Crisis, his most specific case, is 52 years in the past. According to Saul, Lester B. Pearson won his Nobel peace prize by following the aboriginal principle that you must understand the other party and meet him half-way.

"In other words," Saul continues, "Pearson was following classic First Nations negotiations strategy." Did Pearson know that? "Almost certainly not," Saul acknowledges. Still, that's the way Saul sees it. We could just as validly say Pearson used the same approach Europeans and others have used for centuries when solving disputes. By 1956, Pearson had spent two decades learning from old hands on the diplomatic circuit. For evidence that he reflected the aboriginal tradition we have only Saul's intuition, and Saul's necessity to prove a point.

He has many points to make. Because we don't accept our aboriginal origins we are subject to colonialism, "the dominant intellectual current in common use in Canada," for which Saul blames a baffling number of problems. Foreign affairs and Arctic development might logically be impeded by colonialism but Saul cites many others, including inadequate health care and the economic plight of our cities. He seems to attribute everything that's outraged him in the last 20 years to our failure in self-understanding. Even the faults of the Ontario Municipal Board seem to spring from the same error.

For many readers, the most perplexing part of Saul's book will be his hatred of "our deeply dysfunctional elite." He keeps rattling on about our failed elites, our lazy elites, etc. Those idiots apparently don't like Canada or identify with it, therefore can't govern it. Yet they seem to be in charge of the country and responsible for its troubles.

Saul rarely names individual members of the Canadian elite but on anyone else's list surely Saul himself would appear in a featured role. Only three years ago, when his speeches ran on the web site of his wife, Adrienne Clarkson, the then governor-general, he was identified routinely as "His Excellency John Ralston Saul." Excellency? Can you get more elite than that?

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