A Fair Country

Telling Truths About Canada.


A Fair Country – Telling Truths About Canada by john Ralston Saul

the Power of a Story

p xi

To accept and even believe such fundamental misrepresentations of Canada and Canadians is to sever our mythologies from our reality. Playwright and novelist Tomson Highway points out that “Languages are given form by mythologies.” To accept a language that expresses neither our true selves nor our true mythologies is to disarm our civilization. It is to cripple our capacity to talk and to act in a way that reflects both our collective unconscious and our ethical standards.

And so there are actions – creative acts – we believe we should take. We feel it would be right for us to act in a particular way, a way right and true to ourselves. Yet these beliefs and feelings have something inchoate about them, because our mythologies and our organized language do not support them. thus we find it almost impossible to take such action or to act in a way true to ourselves. or we find the process leading to action so difficult, so tortuous, so dragged out that by the time we arrive at the act itself, it is no longer what we had intended.

Part I – A Métis Civilization

Chapter 1 – What Shaped Us


We are a métis civilization.

What we are today has been inspired as much by four centuries of life with the indigenous civilization as by four centuries of immigration. Perhaps more. Today we are the outcome of that experience. As have Métis people. Canadians in general have been heavily influenced and shaped by the First Nations. We still are. We increasingly are. This influencing, this shaping is deep within us.

When I dig around in the roots of how e imagine ourselves, how we govern, how we live together in communities – how we treat one another when we are not being stupid – what I find is deeply Aboriginal. Whatever our family tree may look like, our intuitions and common sense as a civilization are more Aboriginal than European or African or Asian, even though we have created elaborate theatrical screens of language, reference and mythology to misrepresent ourselves to ourselves.

Our leaders endlessly mull over our institutional and cultural inheritance from British parliamentary democracy, British and French justice, the Enlightenment, British liberalism, Western individualism with its important variations, U.S. populism, Judeo-Christian moral questioning, Athenian principles of citizenship and democracy, Western European philosophy, Western social democracy, Western capitalism, in particular its U.S. form. Frankly, once you get below the surface, I see very little in the way we use all of these that would ring familiar bells in Britain, France or elsewhere in Europe or in the United States.


This talent, we seem to be saying, for living comfortably with diversity, is our particular contribution to Western Civilization. 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 challenges quite easy?

Stranger still, in this process of examining our Western inheritance, and vaunting it, there is scarcely a nod, let alone a meaningful nod, in the direction of the First Nations, the Metis, the Inuit. There is no intellectual, ethical or emotional engagement with what their place might be at the core of our civilization. On the single issue of immigration and citizenship diversity, we seem unable to notice the obvious – that it is a non-racial idea of civilization, and non-linear, even non-rational. It is based on the idea of an inclusive circle that expands and gradually adapts as new people join in. This is not a Western or European concept. it comes straight from Aboriginal culture.


Behind the fears of Protestants versus Catholics, English-speaking versus French-speaking, those who imagined themselves as pink or white versus all of those Ukrainians and Jews and Chinese and Japanese, was there a deeper, unspoken fear? Did those Canadians who had got hold of so much of the country – both physical and mythological – fear above all the possibility of a real other whose place this was and in whose shadow they – and eventually we – would have to find our reality? In spite of the posturing and myth manufacturing of those who dominated for approximately one century out of our four, perhaps that real other, the Aboriginal, was as present as ever, with us, within us. And were we not so much one of those singular European races, but something quite different? Perhaps the other we denied and feared was actually the possibility of becoming something more complex, and integral part of that other.

So it is both curious and troubling that we cannot bring ourselves t talk about how profoundly our society has been shaped over four centuries in its non-monolithic, non-European manner by the First Nations.

Chapter 2 – Marrying Up


It was only gradually in the nineteenth century, mainly in the second half, that monolithic nationalism, with its ideas of racial purity and the European inheritance, began to throw whole layers of our society into denial of our past. Suddenly our press, poetry, novels and political discourse were advancing arguments that didn’t match our real past built upon a continuous mixing of people and, more broadly, of cultures. But why believe that the one hundred years of politicized denial that followed could eradicate real attitudes developed over the preceding two hundred and fifty years? Besides, this artificial Europeanization of Canada, destructive though it was to Aboriginals and chosen groups of immigrants, was never complete. Throughout this dark time, there was a multitude of exceptions, the sort of insistent exceptions that showed how alive our underlying civilization was.


Marriage aside, the foundations of the relationships between the First Nations and the Europeans can be seen in the most basic details. The newcomers were welcomed. They were taught how to survive by the Aboriginals. how to dress. How to eat to avoid scurvy, which simply killed those who wouldn’t adapt.

Chapter 3 – Double Denial


Yet we constantly demonstrate our desire to escape our weaknesses and our misunderstandings. The way out is tied to finding language that accurately expresses this desire. After all, what is our language striving for today? Diversity. Inclusion. Complexity. We are gradually returning to attitudes that predate the racially based, European-driven divisions of hte late nineteenth century. At the same time, we miss the deep historic roots of diversity, inclusion and complexity in Canada by merely attributing them to our current society and to recent immigration patterns, to a new and more open society. In this way, we fail to understand that they represent the undercurrent of Canadian civilization. Yes, there are new, positive factors at work. But the collective unconscious carries centuries of experience with complexity and diversity and inclusion.

Part of reconsidering ourselves today is to think about our unbroken past here and those tens of thousands of experiences of métissage and their influence on what we have become. And beyond those physical experiences is the long history of Aboriginal ideas and ways of life mixing in with those who arrived from the sixteenth century on.


Yet the ability of a civilization to survive an grow lies in its ability to describe itself. I don’t mean in some factual or pseudo-factual or scientific manner. Author Thomas King: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Or Tomson Highway: “Languages are given form by mythologies.” Neither is being a romantic. This is one of the rare rock-hard truths of civilization. Again, Guy Vanderhaeghe: “The narrative is how you think of things.” And how you think of things will shape much of what you do or what you want to do or how you understand what you shouldn’t do. the single greatest failure of the Canadian experiment, so far, has been our ability to normalize – that is, to internalize consciously – the First Nations as the senior founding pillar of our civilization.


The result – the ironic result – is that Canadians as a whole will be increasingly dependent – once again – on a healthy relationship with Aboriginals and upon the stability of the Aboriginal cultures. there is great danger in anyone taking a romantic view of this situation. At every level – whether philosophical or utilitarian – the Aboriginals do have much to offer the rest of us.

Chapter 4 – Why We Stumble


The continuity in Aboriginal arguments has been remarkable. In the 1970s, Grand Chief John Kelly pointed out to a royal commission that “We have proved that we will not be assimilated. We have demonstrated that our culture has a viability that cannot be suppressed.” But then he went on to make a broader argument that indigenous leaders have been making for four centuries. “[A]s 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.” In 2008, Tomson Highway was making the same argument in order to introduce a new opera, Pimooteewin. He was talking about the non-linear nature of pantheistic or animistic cultures that “function according to a circle as opposed to a straight line.” And that function is all about inclusion, balance and complexity.


In this inheritance scenario, the Indians were our Greeks – our Athenians, our Spartans. Like the Romans, we were mere farmers or, more recently, manufacturers, paper pushers, service industry workers, increasingly cut off in real life from this remarkable land. And there they were, our predecessors, in Thomas King’s words, “wild, free, powerful, noble, handsome, philosophical, eloquent, solitary.” And romantic though this image might be, it was attached to a certain reality. In the 1880s, the poet Charles Mair, who had passed part of his life on the prairies when the two civilizations were manoeuvring for power, found he had to defend his epic poem Tecumseh because of the noble language he ha put in the native leader’s mouth. “I have never yet heard the Indian speak but as a sensible, intelligent man, fully alive to his interests and conscious of his rights, expressing himself always in language of remarkable vigor and directness.” Of course, Mair didn’t get along with the Métis. Perhaps it all came back to the idea that the Athenian must be of pure blood.


Canadian society is very different from Mexican, yet they resemble each other in this complexity f superimposed pasts far more than they resemble the nation lying between them. It is the difference between a country built upon the conquering and cleansing of its territory and two in which tough circumstances forced different civilizations to figure out how to live together.

Chapter 5 – Learning to See Ourselves


How we might lay out a Canadian point of view that matches our reality is complicated. but what we need to do, how we need to act, is not so difficult. Ideas, intellectual concepts don’t always come first, but they can’t lag far behind existential action. The results of such actions, on the other hand, are impossible to predict, let alone design. What I am talking about is the need for an interim stage. Either we stumble on, ever more frustrated that our society doesn’t function as it should, or we start to rethink our history, to re-examine it. If we look, we will discover the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit at its core. We have to learn how to express that reality, 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. And this is not something that we must do – we, the people who don’t think of ourselves as Aboriginal. It’s something we have to do with Aboriginals. otherwise, it will be just another romantic delusion.

Nor do I mean that this is just a matter of utilitarian action. that would be insulting to all parties. Indigenous peoples are already there, at the core of our civilization. that is our reality. Our challenge is to learn how to recognize what we have trained ourselves not to see. We must remove the imaginative and historical veils that we have used to obscure this reality. that means trying to identify the elements that make this Aboriginal presence real to both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal.


Of course, separating out elements n a complicated world is a valid intellectual activity. It must be done. But the capacity to see how the elements fit together is a completely different form of intelligence and is of equal if not greater importance.

it is that horizontal, inclusive approach to thought that will allow us to see what we have trained ourselves not to see. If we suffer from an imaginative blockage, it is all about generations of tightly argued assumptions.


Tied to such basic realities is the concept of exploration. The newcomers did not discover the interior of Canada. They were shown it, thanks to alliances, treaties and commercial agreements. And most of it was shown to them by canoe.


The broad reality was an integrated First Nations role, central to the shaping of this country, which went on for twice as long as Canada has existed as a Confederation. It was military, civil and commercial. We never really ask ourselves why so many of our provinces, cities and towns, our rivers and lakes, have Aboriginal names, as do our animals, birds, fish, pieces of clothing and means of transport; why there is an Aboriginal presence in the cadence of much of our popular music, particularly in Acadie and Quebec; why Aboriginal art seems to fit us like a glove. These are not names, images, sounds, objects chosen in flights of romantic fancy – tributes to a disappearing past. These are the marks of our reality.

And this reality means that we need to examine the language most of us use to be certain that we understand what we mean. After all, both English and French are understood in different ways in different countries. Here our sense of both languages has been subtly shaped by Aboriginal assumptions. I’m referring to our practical use of these languages but equally to the philosophical, ethical and metaphysical.

Chapter 6 – Progress


First, there are our urban regions, in which most people live. They appear to fit the Western ideal. yet the longer you look, the less typical they seem. For a start, our cities are not the inheritance of the rural. They are gradually turning into primary sites of experimentation for the mixing of races and cultures. Unlike cities in Europe or the United States, in which interesting mixtures are also being created, ours are entirely intentional experiments and are built around an initial assumption of shared citizenship. More than 85 percent of Canadian immigrants become citizens. The U.S. figure is 40 percent. The European figures are much lower. That our approach is intentional doesn’t mean it is thought through or always well done. But the intent sets a pattern for the shaping of these communities.


What could help in Canada is the amplified role of language and non-linear intellectual concepts in Aboriginal culture. After all, oral cultures are centred on the word – remembering he word, mixing the words of the sacred with those of the story, being able to reimagine the word through generations of fire-keepers, keepers of the words and the concepts. One of the standard complaints of the British and the Canadian officials who negotiated treaties with the First Nations was that the latter talked on and on. Had our negotiators paid any attention to the other, they would have realized that the First Nations leaders talked on because they were not engaged in a goal-oriented process that, like the Europeans’ commercial contracts, is concluded by a transfer of ownership. The First Nations leaders weren’t even negotiating ownership. Instead, they were putting on the table concepts of complex, inclusive, balanced existence on the land. The newcomers were pressed for time because they didn’t have much to say and had only come to conclude what they thought of as a legal transfer.


Nevertheless, over the last half-century Canada has begun crawling toward a sense of the essential Aboriginal role in our civilization. The most obvious sign is the extent to which their art has burst into the mainstream of our creative imagination. West Coast and Inuit art in only a few decades have become central to how Canadians represent themselves – that is, how we imagine ourselves. The Great Hall in the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa is central to how we imagine ourselves. Inuit sculpture, whether in its art version or in tourist shops, is central to how we imagine ourselves. Inukshuks, popping up spontaneously on cliffs along the Trans-Canada [and along the Ottawa River], are an existential expression of that imagination. These are conceptual images. they are a physical emanation of ideas. They are consciously attached to Aboriginal concepts of the sacred, of land, of the human role in a larger context of existence. How is it that the vast majority of Canadians, who are neither from the North or the West Coast, have slipped so easily into treating this art as images that could represent them, evocations of their inner self?

The first answer is that we find something true in this art. The second is that we have little trouble in identifying that truth, or rather identifying with it, because we are ourselves in various ways part of the same civilization. The fundamental influence of Aboriginals on our civilization is revealed in the ease with which we have adopted their art as an expression of ourselves.

Chapter 7 – Learning to Imagine Ourselves


The first step in this normalization involves picking out the strategic elements that shape how we imagine ourselves. We can then see whether each of these is limited to the Aboriginal nature of Canada. What are these strategic elements?

Our obsession with egalitarianism. Our desire to maintain a balance between individuals and groups. The delight we take in playing with our non-monolithic idea of society – a delight in complexity. Our tendency to try to run society as an ongoing negotiation, which must be related to our distaste for resolving complexities. Our preference, behind a relatively violent language of public debate, for consensus – again an expression of society as a balance of complexity, a sort of equilibrium. Our intuition that behind the formal written and technical face of society lies something more important, which we try to get at through the oral and through complex relationships. Our sense that the clear resolution to differences will lead to injustice and even violence. And related to that our preference for something that the law now calls minimal impairment, which means the obligation of those with authority to do as little damage as possible to people and to rights when exercising that authority.


Why is it that we don’t build the revolutionary ideas of communications, which have their origins here, into a way of thinking about ourselves? the ideas are still here. You red Douglas Coupland, you read Thomas King, and what do you find if not the expression of Innis and McLuhan and the role of the oral throughout history.

Now turn to how we actually study ourselves or how we think about what we can do or not do. Suddenly that originality disappears. the working assumption is that modern theories are developed elsewhere and if by chance they appear here, they must be sent away, sold off, to be fully developed. In effect, we cut ourselves off from our own creativity.


If Outsiders are now looking at Canada with curiosity or apprehension, it is not simply because we have overtly and rather contentedly come to see ourselves as a society of minorities. More important, it is because we have slowly begun to develop a philosophy of minorities.

Chapter 10 – Within an Ever-Enlarging Circle


If there is a serious problem, a lack of perspective, it lies with non-Aboriginals. Even in an area as successful as literature – in both French and English – our remarkable creativity seems stuck on lack of a sense of self. And people elsewhere, for example, while admiring our novels, sense this confusion and hesitation. Robert Bringhurst: Our “literature remains in a state of denial, refusing to graft to the roots that it needs. So long as that’s the case, this anglophone and francophone society is likely to remain in some respects just as colonial, just as lien, just as ill-a-ease in its own landscape” as centuries ago. You see this in the eagerness of our universities to soft-pedal the idea of Canadian literature, the eagerness of almost everyone to describe what is written in terms drawn from the three imperial centres, past and present, the lack of interest in seeking profound internal explanations.


David Malouf, the Australian novelist, has talked about how it was necessary to name the flowers, trees, animals of Australia before real poetry could be written. We have more than done this. But Malouf’s point was more profound. You have to embrace the relationship between place and creativity. And that also has been done here. But then you must try to understand that relationship. You must learn how to name yourself as a point in the broad historic, geographic and social process. That has only very partially been done.

Those of us who tend not to think of ourselves as Aboriginal are lucky to be living in a time of such powerful indigenous resurgence. Some thirty-five years ago, Chief Dan George wrote:

Am I to come as a beggar and receive all from your omnipotent hand? Somehow I must wait. I must find myself. I must find my treasure. I must wait until you want something of me, until you need something that is me. Then I can raise my head and say to my wife and family … listen … they are calling … they need me …

I must go.

I feel that need. For myself. For the country. This is the missing key to making sense of what we have and what we feel is not being fulfilled.


Yet our education reflects almost none of this. Indigenous peoples are working hard to rebuild their self-confidence by building their culture back into their own education. To the extent that that schooling is designed by our departments of education, it is still more often than not constructed as a straight rejection of the Aboriginal reality. for that reason it needs to be rethought to create a balance. But we also need urgently to begin building their culture into the broad Canadian education system – into our schools and universities – for Canadians as a whole. not simply into specialized courses, but into the ways we all look at geography, at history, at philosophy, at poetry as much as at justice.

Not to do this merely isolates us more and more from what is happening anyway. If we do not educate ourselves and think about ourselves in a way that reflects the manner in which Canada is beginning to run, it is as if we are choosing a sort of existential illiteracy.


The original party, the Aboriginal, is built upon a philosophy that has interdependence at its core. This is opposite of such European ideas as the melting pot, which was picked up by our neighbour as a way of explaining how you could get a new kind of European-style purity out of a mix of peoples. The idea of difference is central to indigenous civilization. The differences are not meant to be watertight compartments, not vessels of purity. it is all about working out how to create relationships that are mixed in various ways and designed to create balances. It is the idea of a complex society functioning like an equally complex family within an ever-enlarging circle. That is the Canadian model.

Part IV – An Intentional Civilization

Chapter 23 – From Perception to Action


What we become in our lives is often a matter of self-perception So, too, for any society. If we can see how Canada has taken its unconscious shape from our Aboriginal experience and how we have organized that inspiration around the concept of peace, fairness and good government, we will approach our need to act in a different manner. We will feel ourselves justified in acting differently. It will seem to us that we are acting intentionally. And so, when we do act in a manner that reflects the foundations of our society, it will no longer be possible to present what we do as accidental or romantic or as merely the result of following a strong leader who took us momentarily off our old, orderly course. Instead, building upon fairness and inclusion, for example, or acting as if there is a natural and positive tension between people and place will feel to us like actions of continuity, in which we are building upon centuries-old patterns of behaviour that are true to this place.

Is it really only a matter of a few words? Is it as easy at that?

Why should it be easy? These concepts express what we are, and therefore what we can do, and how. Consciously absorbed and used they would bring our perceptions of ourselves in line with our reality. That means changing the way we think and talk about ourselves. Few things can be as difficult as that.


The Aboriginal idea of society as a great circle works here. It is a mechanism of inclusion that absorbs new members, adjusting as it does so. It explains how we function. It explains why we seek balance rather than clarity. That balance is not a stand-alone human talent. It works because the circle is imagined as being one with the place. Witaskewin. Living together on the land. Seeking balance. Seeking a broader harmony. Accepting that this can only be multi-dimensional.


The novelist Joseph Boyden was asked in 2008 what he would tell people mattered if he was around in fifty years’ time. he is young enough that he should get the chance to deliver his answer in person Boyden replied, “The Land.” Not the human view of the land or the urban view of the land, not even human responsibility for the land. It wasn’t a romantic point of view or an environmentalist answer.

It was a sensible, balanced view. We are part of the land. .We are included in it. And Canada is the sort of place – the sort of land – that can’t be mistaken for background or decor or even necessarily for something of utilitarian use.


More precisely, the First Nations had never been, as Tomson Highway pointed out in the same conversation, expelled from the Garden of Eden. That means two things. No god has separated the people from the land. The land is therefore neither the enemy nor a lost paradise. Second, there is no built-in social concept of guilt.


This is worsened by the absence of any sustained conversation between Aboriginals and new Canadians. The assumption of the guardians of Canada’s image of itself – long-established, now urban Canadians – is shaped by the fact that most immigrants come to cities. Therefore, it is assumed the filter of their Canadianization should quite logically be those same long-established urban citizens. They are the source of continuity. This is not entirely wrong. New Canadians need and want to be drawn into the full meaning of their citizenship as fast as possible. But the missing conversation, which is desperately needed, is between Aboriginals and new Canadians. What’s more, half of the Aboriginal population is now also urban.

The role of those among us who were not expelled makes perfect sense when we try to understand how Canada actually works. Our complexity is built on our comfort in the place, not on our fear of it. This is not a civilization of fear, in spite of the constant attempts by those who embrace the idea of order to impose the opposite. Our circular, non-Manichean, non-punishing approach is the product of a civilization that does not see itself as fallen or expelled.


And what does imagining ourselves as being here actually mean? Surely it means that if you can accurately describe yourself and how your society functions, you will then be able to deal with the world in a comfortable and successful, not fearful, manner. This is where the idea of the great circle joins that of fairness. And together they form the basis of our long-term public policies. They are as relevant to health policy and foreign policy as they are to a wealth-creating market and a creative rather than defensive approach to the environment.

And yet, imagining ourselves as being here s more difficult than ever. Most of us live in cities and know little else. These cities can be wonderful places. But they can also become the new garrisons. With this urban life comes two contradictory perceptions of ourselves. One is a modern version of the old fear attached to the expelled Judeo-Christian world view. People are what matters. People are in the cities. The rest is romanticism.

But since the land is seen as separate from the city and is not known, the urban view itself takes on a romantic view of what lies out there, out of sight.

Chapter 25 – a Circle of Fairness


The colonial mindset is always easy to identify in Canada, because it attacks fairness and inclusion as soft and romantic notions. They are neither. I can’t think of anything harder to achieve. It is far easier to glory in class difference, financial difference, racial difference, insiders versus outsiders. i can’t think of a more romantic notion than to believe that a stable society can be built on the celebration of disadvantage.


We are a mid-size, middle-class country living next to a behemoth. We need to take very advantage of every situation. We cannot afford to waste lives or be lazy and sloppy. We know we need better-educated students, intellectually prepared for a society in constant change. We need them to have the self-confidence to be open to questioning, to ideas, to risk. … To accomplish this, the emphasis in our education needs to be on content, on thinking. That means smaller classes, more teachers, more professors, more bilingual students, more trilingual students. We need our universities to be working hand in hand with our high schools. We need the opposite of call-centre education. The last thing we need to do is promote training over education. We can’t afford that sort of unimaginative, mechanical approach. Yet that is exactly the approach we are taking.


These are not complicated or even original observations or suggestions I am making. Most of them are widely understood. Many of our difficult problems are not particularly difficult. The point that we need to be thinking about is what holds us back.


The Aboriginal idea of a circle is based upon that idea of tension [between the individual and group]. We need to redesign our education to do the same. When i say it needs to be about thinking not training, I could equally say it needs to e about engagement and aggressive debate, not about smooth expertise and passive service.


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