This is the continuation of my series on Canada 150; we look at Saul Ralston Saul’s views on the historical influences that shaped Canada and how these might play out today and in the near future.
Canada is Canada: This is a serious and sober lecture on Canada’s history with its Indigenous peoples. This is one of John Ralston Saul’s main themes when discussing Canadian history and the building of our nation, including on the characteristics of citizenship and national good. Canada makes a concerted effort to make immigrants citizens; this includes having a Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, a cabinet level post. The current minister is Ahmed Hussen, who arrived in Canada as a 16-year-old refugee from Somalia in 1993. This makes Minister Hussen at least knowledgeable of what newcomers to Canada face. The more that we know the more that we can do to build a better country.
John Ralston Saul, a Canadian philosopher and public intellectual, explains in a lecture that he delivered a few years ago on why Canada is the most “American of nations;” and the United States is the “child of Europe,” with its founding principles of Enlightenment and Rationalism. Canada’s history is tied neither to the U.S. nor to Europe, Saul says, but to its Indigenous peoples—the various Aboriginal people that were already here when explorers from France and Britain first arrived and then settled in Canada almost 500 years ago.
This fact of history is taught in schools and already known by most Canadians, that is, the long presence of Aboriginals in Canada (named by Jacques Cartier, from the Iroquoian word kanata, meaning “village”). Yet, Saul takes this argument a step further in this lecture, which is based on the book that he wrote, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada (2008). In a review article (Are We a Métis Nation?; April 2009) in the Literary Review of Canada, Andrew Potter, himself a Canadian philosopher, writes:
Instead, he argues that we are actually a Métis nation, our ideas and institutions shaped by the original and ongoing interaction between the English- and French-speaking immigrants and the First Nations who were running things when the white men arrived. Indeed, Saul goes even further and claims that we are far more aboriginal than we are European, and our failure to recognize this is what prevents us from becoming the strong, confident and progressive country that is our birthright.Anyone who has lived in Canada for some time, and spent at least one winter here, will agree that our geography and climate are fundamental keys to understanding us. But what really makes us unique is our historical relationship (i.e., that of the “early European settlers” from Britain and France) with Aboriginals, who found a harmonious way to live in this geography and climate, which is so often harsh and unaccommodating.
This being the case, the early people from Europe adapted themselves to ideas of restraint, of a civilization of minorities, of balance and equilibrium and not to the monolithic ideas of culture and identity such as is common in America (“a child of Europe”), which is primarily about conquering and dominance and determining the lives of others within its sphere of influence. That makes this philosopher’s idea an meritorious and noteworthy one, and one that I easily find acceptable.
Given our history, Aboriginal communities and the Aboriginal people need to be strengthened. Real power and real money need to be shifted to these Indigenous peoples, which means stopping “the mean-spiritedness,” Saul says, which has been so common the last hundred years or so in negotiations between governments and one of the pillars of Canada. In other words, we Canadians need to accord these peoples the respect that they deserve. About 1.4 million people self-identify as Aboriginal; this is 4.3% of Canada’s population.
This is both important and worth considering during our Canada 150 celebrations; for example, one could not help but notice a teepee on Parliament Hill (near the main stage at Centre Block) that a group of Indigenous people set up as a symbol of grievance and hope for reconciliation. Our prime minister spent 40 minutes talking to its occupants. They do not view the celebrations the same way as most Canadians likely do, and understandably so. But there is hope for real change.
Canada is like no other nation, chiefly because of its history and the decisions that it has made. Watching the celebrations on the CBC on Saturday, and listening to the speeches from the dignitaries, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, I can see that this idea put forth by Saul is already taking fleshly shape in the halls of parliament, in Ottawa, our nation’s capital. It will, however, take time; even as I note this I am optimistic that Canada will do the right thing, and progress forward, because this is the Canada that most Canadians love and respect.