John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country
How Canada’s origins continue to set us apart today.
I used to be so proud to be Canadian and that’s wavered over this difficult period in our history. I was searching for this book to loan out, and once found, I got totally engrossed in re-reading it. It made me feel so much better. It’s an important book about who we really are: A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada by John Ralston Saul (2009). What a delight!
Like Hedges’ Empire of Illusion, this book focuses on our cultural stories or myths. How we understand ourselves affects how we live and act, our beliefs and allegiances. And we Canadians have lost our way swimming through the miasma of American influence. As a civics teacher, when I do a pre-test at the beginning of the year, a good half the grade ten class give American answers to questions about Canadian politics. Once in a while, someone admits that they thought Obama was our president too. And they’re not far off. We have a long journey ahead of us to correct this indoctrination. We can’t be true to ourselves if we don’t know who we are.
Here are my notes and thoughts along the way, but do read the book — I’ve just captured the ideas, but the stories are what make it.
Part I: A Métis Civilization
We have been heavily shaped and influenced by the non-monolithic, non-European First Nations. We tend to think ourselves British, and European, as a place built on “Tory Loyalist and church-bound Catholic foundations,” but we’ve forgotten the ongoing effect our interactions with First Nations continue to have.
We congratulate ourselves for establishing a cultural mosaic peacefully, so different than the ongoing racial problems in many European countries,
“Yet we never seriously asked ourselves how that came to be. After all, if our civilization has been built out of the Western inheritance, how is it that the rest of the West is struggling precisely where we find the challenges quite easy?…We seem unable to notice the obvious — that it is a non-racial idea of civilization, and non-linear, even non-rational…It comes straight from Aboriginal culture” (4).
The fact that we treat the First Nations groups so horrifically is a testament, perhaps, to our collective denial, guilt, and self-loathing (5). We mistakenly bought into the need for the purity of a single group. “Perhaps the other we denied and feared was actually the possibility of becoming something more complex, and integral part of that other” (6). This is physically true as well in that “Anyone whose family arrived before the 1760s is probably part Aboriginal” (8) including Sir James Douglas (at right). Saul quotes Champlain who said, “Our young men will marry your daughters, and we shall be one people” and adds, “With this sentence, he reveals the nature of the First Nation-European relationship — at the very lest one of equals” (10). There were examples of great leadership from First Nations including Big Bear and Poundmaker, and the new settlers who took advise from the First Nations were better able to survive. The arrogant British upper crust “dressed so inappropriately and ate so badly that they died of scurvy or lost their teeth, then hair” (38).
“One of the principal causes of death among the British and U.S. explorers was their refusal to dress, act, or eat like savages….It was only late in the nineteenth century that they came to terms with their own inferiority and comic or tragic-comic self-absorption….These sort of comic stories need to be told because they highlight how insistent we have remained on seeing our country through the eyes of these explorers rather than through the eyes of those who already lived here” (12).
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the British pressure to “treat land and culture in a monolithic manner” (17) provoked a rebellion (Riel and Dumont). Not all of the new leaders would have agreed with this colonialist plan, including Cartier, Howe, and Tupper. Saul largely blames the Orangemen, members and supporters of the Family Compact, the “driving force in what we did wrong….It was as if, by becoming the voice for loyalty to the Queen and the Empire, they could pass for the voice of a majority that did not exist” (18). They used treaties duplicitously, furthered the myth that the First Nations were dying out completely (a population decrease from 2 million to 100 thousand over four centuries) (23), and helped it along by imprisoning or executing their leaders.
“Poundmaker surrendered by offering his hand to the British general who had led the expedition to put down the uprising. Middleton refused it, turned his back and had the captive chained….It was one of those existential moments when the monolithic model, represented by this British general, showed how shamefully unsuitable it was to a complex place such as Canada” (19).
Our problem in Canada today is we still try to connect with the ideas of the British and European (Voltaire, Woolf…), while ignoring, or being ignorant of, the words and actions of our own ancestors, like Riel who said, “the Métis population was small, but in its smallness it had its rights. The other was great, but in its greatness is had no greater rights than the rights of the small, because the right is the same for everyone” (21). There are some signs of a resurgence, like the Delgamuukw ruling in BC, but they’re small and slow-growing.
We ignore our history because “we don’t know what to do with the least palatable part of the settler story. We wanted the land. It belonged to someone else. We took it” (27). As the First Nation groups are gaining a stronger political voice, we’re better served to reconcile our past and acknowledge our continuing connection with them. Grand Chief John Kelly, in a 1970 royal commission said, “We have proved that we will not be assimilated. We have demonstrated that our culture has a viability that cannot be suppressed…As the years go by the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colours and religion are entering that circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us” (29).
BUT, I hasten to add that the problem isn’t just our history, but our present. We’re still totally screwing them over. When we’re not bulldozing their homes for condos or a golf course or a park, we’re poisoning their water with mercury, or arguing forever over who’s responsibility it is to build them a school until finally a celebrity gets involved. Before we can reconcile our horrific past, we have to stop being so horrific!
Why do we continue to treat a group of Canadians so disrespectfully? Saul suggests we have a mindset based on our skewed understanding of our history, that quietly thinks, “You’re supposed to have disappeared so that we can put up some statues, write some poems and get on with our lives as your anointed successors” (32). We need to “rethink our history…to learn how to express the reality of our history. I am not talking about a passive projection of our past, but rather about all of us learning how to imagine ourselves differently…with Aboriginals. Otherwise, it will be just another romantic delusion….Our challenge is to learn how to recognize what we have trained ourselves not to see” (35).
In education, written words are valued higher than spoken, and Aboriginal culture is often an oral tradition. Harold Innis defended oral communications, and his ideas inspired Marshall McLuhan. The things taught are often with a British or European basis, and “The higher your studies go, the more they are built around narrow, exclusionary ideas of truth, tightly tied to a world of people footnoting one another” (36). And Aboriginal forces repeatedly defended, saved, or help save the space that would become Canada like the battles of Queenston Heights, and Grand Coteau (41).
“The European view of human progress, which includes the U.S. view, is a civilization that begins with hunting and gathering, leaves that behind for the sedentary pastoral life and in turn leaves the farm behind for the always intended destination of high civilization: urban life,” but many new French and British settlers actually went the other direction and joined the “mysterious borderless world of rivers and forests” (45). For many of them, it brought financial wealth — something we don’t expect from our understanding of history.
We think we’ve adopted that European idea, but our cities are not the homogenized versions found elsewhere in the West. We have an intentionally strong multicultural element to our urban areas. It is largely an Aboriginal concept to integrate newcomers equally rather than relegate them a separate section of space. To see the Aboriginal nature of Canada we can pick out strategic elements that shape how we imagine ourselves, and see which are linked to Aboriginal thought. Some of these include our obsession with egalitarianism, a delight in complexity, a tendency to run society and an ongoing negotiation, our preference for consensus, and the notion of minimal impairment — the obligation of those with authority to have limited rights (54–5). We think of some Aboriginal tribes as being brutal torturers, but “among Europeans at that time, practices of torture and execution were more common than among Aboriginals and at least as violent in their details” (61). European ideology is one of clear answers, good and evil, winners and losers [with humans at the top of everything]…the other choice — the indigenous — does not suggest that there is some possible ideal situation. None has ever existed” (63). Life is more circular, complex, and intermixed.
Taiaiake Alfred, an Aboriginal philosopher, condemns most of our current treaty negotiations as “‘the politics of pity.’ What he wants is the reclamation of our dignity and strength.’ This involves betting back to ‘the founding principles’ of our relationships [through] a restored spiritual foundation…that links politics, family, society and the individual together…that involves treating humans as just one of the elements in the great circle’” (75).
Canadians carry both traditions, but the European tendencies in full-force elsewhere have been limited by our Aboriginal heritage. We’re on the wrong path when we try to match American “standards” because they truly aren’t our own. We’ve been idealizing the wrong people. Psychically, we are still a colony, not of Britain or France, but of the U.S. And we have a “colonial inferiority complex” (77). We often follow their weak environmental policies and unnecessary invasive moves into battle — neither of which is the Canadian way of working with nature and negotiating with people. We’re still not ready to be ourselves. These ideas need to be part of our education, not just in a specialized way, but integrated into all courses. We invest heavily in computers across the curriculum, but little in the way of culture across the curriculum. Which will have a more lasting impact in future generations — if we can make a website, or if we recognize the core principles of our people?
Part II: Peace, Fairness and Good Government
We’re mistaken about the history of our motto, “Peace, Order and Good Government.” We credit it to our conservative origins — particularly the church-loving French, but it was invented by “a tiny, empire-besottled elite — English or pretend-English” (112). It’s a sign that “one of the underlying characteristics of elite success in Canada continues to be insecurity and their sense that reality is not here, but elsewhere” (114). In reality, the phrase “…has been used only twice. The rest of the time, from official documents to proto-consittutions to political instructions, the phrase used was fundamentally different — Peace, Welfare and Good Government” (114).
The Quebec Act of 1774, which guaranteed a minority group specific rights, was “legally described as cutting off down an unexplored path — a track untried in Europe and contrary to the fashion of the day….Canada would be a place that, in order to exist, would have to do so upon a triangular foundation of Aboriginals, francophones and anglophones” (118–9), while the United states, “is still very much caught up in the old European idea that mixed Enlightment principles with purity of race and cullture” (120). This just goes to show how atypical our history has been.
But after the Quebec Act, the Brits imposed new rules and regulations until 1840 when Louis-Hyppolite LaFontaine wrote a letter to his own constituents calling for an “abolition of elite privileges” among other thing.
“He mocked those who believed that you could get what you wanted form the Empire by building a special relationship with those who ran it. What you needed was an ethically and intellectually integrated strategy based upon a program for action. In other words, he reformulated the political spectrum…Democracy was taken for granted as the essential immediate goal, but the real question was what to do with that democracy once you had it. The answer was to build a fair society. You could take his key points, exactly as he wrote them, and lay out a concept of action perfect for today. What made it work then, as it would now, is that his assumptions were not those of European-style monolithic state. Instead, they were built upon the atypical, non-monolithic model that had emerged over the preceding century” (131).
The mythology we believe based on the words we follow affect how we respond to government. We need to acknowledge our true history and shift back towards helping others through fair policy instead of fear-based order.
He’s critical of the move in 2007 to arm the border formerly known as the longest undefended in the world:
“It reflects the inferiority complex of those who made such decisions….Wherever you look in the world you find that those obsessed by order require disorder to fulfill their inner fears….Leaders driven by fear are the source of populism….A successful society is able to subdue the natural fear of men and women sufficiently to release our positive and creative characteristics. The power of populism is that it brings an atmosphere of insecurity to the fore and so causes even the most stable of socieities to be consumed by that fear and so become obsessed by order” (160).
Because, “If we imagine ourselves as a place of order rather than one of fairness, we will have effectively prevented ourselves form acting as we wish….Once decent people can express the elements of fairness as if it were normal, they will more or less agree on what has to be done” (167–8).
Part III: The Castrati
The elites in our country are “deeply dysfunctional” — “afraid of ideas, afraid to talk with the citizenry through ideas, afraid to encourage the wide discussion of ideas in order to find the basis for its action…would rather sell than buy, rather trade in wealth than create it” (176).
Medicare has been dismantled. We’ve got 1/4 million homeless. Mental health wards have been shut down to save money. We’ve overfished the oceans.
This is all due in part to the “isolation of elites….They resemble the classic First World War staff officer who spent his time at headquarters poring over maps and memos. He didn’t have time to see the trenches” (189). The power in the country is not currently of the people. It’s for a select group to develop their own wealth and personal allies who turn a blind eye to the results of their decisions. “How can you correct mistakes if there is no capacity to admit them in the first place” (190).
Beyond just oblivion, the elites appear to have contempt for the commoners. This is evident in the rise of state-run gambling.
“To gamble is every citizen’s right. To have your democratically elected government use the citizen’s money in order to organize campaigns to push people to gamble is quite a different story….We have thousands of years of history that tells us about elites who turn to gambling for state revenues. Without exception, history identifies those leaders as degenerates who are responsible for dragging down their civilization” (199).
And we’ve sold off all our best assets to the highest bidder — specifically in steel, mining, forestry and breweries. “The selling-off of public companies by their managers for their own short-term profit a…has nothing to do with the marketplace or with capitalism….Such actions have to do with a managerial sense of entitlement” (264). Since 1988, the “elite no longer seemed to have the emotional solidity needed to initiate actions. They became increasingly passive” (227). And we let it happen because of our colonial mindset: The colonized mind is parasitically obsessed with the extraneous relation with the colonial powers. It is their responsibility to echo the empire’s culture in order to keep standards up….by ensuring that your models for thought come from there not here” (230). We’ve shifted to be the little sister of the United States since “the British move toward free trade was structured in such a way as to consistently favour the U.S. economy over the Canadian” (242). Even our provincial slogans are American references.
The “elite interpretation of our literature, and therefore of our characters, has been shoehorned into a British or French colonial mould….All of this eliminated — and continues to eliminate — the reality of the lengthy, stable Aboriginal role in the shaping of Canada’s fundamental mindset. Northrop Frye said, “There must be a period of certain magnitude…in which a social imagination can take root and establish a tradition….Canada has never had it” (234).
And the elite don’t read.
“One of the things that constantly strikes me in Ottawa is how few people with any kind of power read anything beyond a briefing note….In most other Western countries, there is not such functional illiteracy at senior levels. In most key countries, a good percentage of the leadership read, educate themselves, attempt not to slip into dependency on mere briefings, which shift power to those who wrote them. What then is the explanation for the Canadian situation except that those in power do not have the self-confidence to attempt to think” (241).
We have “bureaucratized the structures of every profession, the theory being that we won’t need to enforce anything if the industries and professions manage themselves. In this way, we have discouraged real leaders by blunting their place on entrepreneurial boards” (267).
He criticizes the OMB, changes to Stats Canada, and the CRTC, then gets back to literary and historical figures that we largely ignore.
“But once you accept that the United States is rightfully the primary inheritor of the European ideal and that we don’t fit into that model, you have the basic elements for a very different approach. ….The more we see ourselves backlit by soft Victorian melancholy, the more we use Euro-U.S. concepts, the more we project ourselves as a derivative sideshow, the more we then evaporate for anyone’s imagination, including our own” (275).
Part IV: An Intentional Civilization
We have to stop “taming” the wild, and start living within it — as part of it, and take “a creative rather than defensive approach to the environment” (283).
“Northern cultures and points of view are treated as marginal….but Canada as a whole benefits and is truer to itself when there are strong Northern communities that stand out as expressions of our country….small, isolated communities is the reality of more than half our country” (287–8) “Part of it…is our desire to see the North in old-fashioned frontier terms, instead of a society offering a possible expression of welfare, of fairness” (297) “We undermine our own sovereignty position by presenting Inuit citizens as fragile survivors instead of as the source of Canada’s power and legitimacy” (301).
“Our approach toward energy over the last quarter-century highlights that passive and frightened atmosphere.” (307). Our provinces are too segregated to work together on this.
Then he outlines how to fix the energy crisis, homelessness, and health care. “The point I’m making is that what we see as our problems are more often merely the result of our problems. We are a mid-sized, middle-class country living next to a behemoth. We need to take every advantage of every situation” (309).
We still donate and volunteer as much or more than other countries, and we allow more refugees. “That is our historic secret. We have not built Canada by robbing poorer countries of their scarce elites. We have done it by offering an opportunity to those with the courage to seize it” (316). “It would take very little now in the rethinking of how we imagine ourselves — all of us — to re-centre our civilization on that Aboriginal reality” (318).