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Bookends: Imagining the aboriginal roots of Canada January 27, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Imagining the aboriginal roots of Canada

By Dan Davidson

June 17, 2015

– 801 words –


A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada

By John Ralston SaulA Fair Country

Penguin Books

342 pages



The most basic summary of Saul’s 2008 study of our country is to say that we are not who we think we are, and that this misunderstanding is holding us back. Saul apparently expands on this theme in his next cultural analysis, The Comeback, but the reviews of that refer to it as a sequel, so after the publisher sent me a copy of that it seemed I had better read this one first.

The first 110 or so pages present Saul’s argument that we take more of our social morays and thoughts about government than we are aware of from the First Nations. While there are British and French roots in our self definition, there are also aboriginal roots that we tend to ignore. Such a blending makes us a Metis civilization, not as European as “deux nations” theorists would have us to be, and not quite like our American neighbours to the south and (writing from the Yukon) the west.

Part two of the book deals directly with governance. Time was when one could not get through Canadian Government 101 without learning that one of our defining characteristics was “peace, order and good government”, shortened to the POG Clause. The order part has been used to justify breaches of civil liberties such as the War Measures Act and, more recently, Bill C-51, the omnibus bill (“An Act to enact the Security of Canada Information Sharing Act and the Secure Air Travel Act, to amend the Criminal Code, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and to make related and consequential amendments to other Acts”) that will restrict our liberties and freedoms in the name of defending them.

Saul maintains that the original versions of the documents that led to Confederation had “fairness” where the British parliament insisted on putting Order. Had we but followed the nation building strategies of Baldwin and LaFontaine (Saul’s very favourite pre-Canadian politicians) we would be a very different nation today, and things like the Residential Schools tragedy might never have occurred.

In part three Saul takes on the leaders of our nation, the political and business elites. He calls them castrati, for he says they have neutered themselves in their attempts to be British, French, American, anything but the fully committed Canadians they need to be in order to make the most of our resources and national spirit.

Our elites are failing us on a regular basis because they don’t know who we are, or who they ought to be, or what the nature of our country is.

Castrati, of course, were those male singers who maintained their youthful soprano voices by being castrated and thus, never becoming fully adult males.

It all comes back to what Saul writes on the very first page of his book, a thought that heartens to Thomas King’s dictum that all we are is stories and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are what define us.

Saul’s version of this thought goes like this:

“A dancer who describes himself as a singer will do neither well.”

(Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire might argue with him, but they were exceptional.)

“To insist on describing ourselves as something we are not is to embrace existential illiteracy. We are not a civilization of British or French or European inspiration. We never have been. Our society is not an expression of peace, order and good government.. It never was.”

As he begins the last section of the book, Saul issues a bit of a challenge. He is going to deal a bit with the North and with something he calls A Circle of Fairness.

“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.”

His notion is that should have an idea of citizenship that is a “circle that welcomes and adapts” and in which “fairness and inclusion are the keys to how we function.”

I’m not at all certain that I am entirely convinced by his arguments, but I do think that he argues with some conviction, that a good many of his criticisms are well founded, and that the discussion is worth having.

Indeed, the weakest point of the book is that it lacks an index, making it difficult to check on specific points when trying to review its contents.







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