Research Department

Interview with John Ralston Saul

October 18th, 2013 § 0 comments

February 27th, 2013

Most people I have encountered who are talking about A Fair Country seem to be Aboriginal. What has been the response to the book generally, particularly to the section called The Castrati — the politicians, bureaucrats and historians who’ve misinterpreted our past as a people and a civilization? 

Most people act as if that part of the book doesn’t exist. Canadians don’t really want to read about that kind of failure, I sense. But I felt I had to write that part of the book because to me one of the characteristics of colonialism is what people don’t say. The colonial mind is in all the things that aren’t said. The part of the book people talk about is the first part, the aboriginal part. Not so much because it’s positivist, but because it gives an explanation which makes sense to people. I think the effect of the castrati part is, someone read it and think “am I like that?”  They may not want to talk about it, but they think about it.

What I liked about The Castrati section was your naming of people. What happened to the Indigenous people didn’t happen by fiat, you are saying; it happened because people made it happen.

That’s right. I think it was very important for me to say that we didn’t have to do these things, none of this it was inevitable, this happened because people allowed it to happen, because they didn’t take responsibility. There’s a very interesting little detail in all of this — the last 40 years of the globalist period when theoretically all the walls were falling down and it didn’t matter who owned things [because] nobody was in charge, the market was in charge. Well, first of all nobody outside the West ever believed any of that, either because they were benefiting from it or suffering from it, one or the other. Nobody in the U.S. ever believed that really, no one in England ever believe that, so why do people in Canada believe in that? Fine, a little bit of cultural nationalism but they became embarrassed by the idea that you should own something or have a long-term policy or take responsibility, No, the sophisticated modern international thing is that you can’t control that of sort of  thing locally, whereas, in fact, everybody else was controlling it locally. See, that’s the sign of the colonial mind.

Let’s focus on Métis Canada. How do think the absorption of those Indigenous ideals and ways of being happened? You can’t exactly look it up in documents…

There are a lot more documents than you think — just read five volumes of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, an most amazing collection. People have said it endlessly, endlessly, the stuff I’m saying; it’s been said for 400 years. It was kind of a willful writing it out of our history.

Who was saying it?

All sorts of people. The Aboriginals were saying it, non-Aboriginals, the Métis, all sorts of Hudson Bay people were saying it, the early treaties, the Peace of Montreal, the subsequent Peace of Niagara, letters between people, comments by people. Tons of documentation. So we have those things we’ve chosen to focus on, the reports home by the colonial officers — “I’m doing a wonderful job subduing the (you know the myth) barbarians”. But even those people will be writing another letter in parallel saying something else. I remember a wonderful letter back to priests coming out [to New France], I think from Brébeuf,  an absolutely unforgiving instruction to them on how to act. When you read this you realize the reason he’s telling them this is because they’re otherwise going to come here and think they’re in charge. What you do, he tells them, is help carry the canoe, eat what you’re given, don’t wear your large hat in the canoe because otherwise people can’t see..etc And suddenly you have a vision of these young priests as totally in the hands of the Wyandot, or whoever, and that’s a very different relationship.

One of the difficulties is that the way we’ve written history and that it is, first of all, written. That’s been the twentieth century approach to history. In the 19th century people were much more open to oral memory and talking to people. So you end up with this footnoted approach, and the dilemma of what facts are you going to choose? You’re [living] in this period when the dominant ethos is European so you choose those documents. So there’s a winnowing going on which then takes you away from what might be happening. People do things, they have relationships, they build communities and somebody writes something that doesn’t describe it properly; this does not mean it didn’t happen, and it doesn’t mean people have forgotten. People don’t forget so easily; people remember on many levels. The collective unconscious does exist.

I’ve recently reviewed Carolyn Abraham’s book on her family genealogy and DNA testing called The Juggler’s Children, in which family memory turns out to be at least as reliable as science.

This is what the Delgamuuk case was about, oral history and memory. Take the business of the letter from the BC chiefs outside Kamloops to Wilfred Laurier in 1910. Here’s this remarkable letter describing the relationships there for 150 years before, I suppose; it’s not taught anywhere, it’s not part of our official history.  I was in Kamloops speaking at the university in August, 2010 and there were a lot of Aboriginals in the audience. You remember, Laurier did that big trip across Canada that year.  When I started talking about this letter, they said, yes, yes we’re going to celebrate it, it’s the 100th anniversary. They know it, and they’ve figured out ways to keep it going, they’re were going to restage it. …

I can hardly get through a speech about Canada without quoting one (or more) documents, saying this is one of the most important documents in the creation of Canada and it’s very beautifully written and full of ideas and eloquence and that’s why you’ve never heard of it and why it’s not taught. But this doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. It’s there.

Do have a grip on how Canadian historiography has changed?

I think what’s changing is that for the first time since the creation of Canadian universities you now find young aboriginal professors there. They are bringing memory back into what is now the mainstream. Is it an obligatory course, no, but it’s an important step. These are voices that didn’t exist, and they publishing stuff. Niigonwedom James Sinclair at the University of  Winnipeg has just published a book which won prises, collecting all the aboriginal writings of Manitoba.

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So here’s what happened. You are sitting in Canada, which actually had been on its own in many ways for a long time, and suddenly you have this big influx of people arriving from the most important empire in the world. These people, like the people going from Britain to India, will jump one to two classes by coming to Canada. So, if they left England as working class they will be at least lower middle class here if not middle class. And they just impose this view which is the British (or French) view of the world.  They come and kind of sit on top of Canadian society, and they have a leg up. You may have been here for generations but you’re of German origin. We’re English. We’re Protestant.

This is when the term Anglo-Saxon started to be used, to cover all this, around 1890s?

Yes. It’s all that stuff. And they started talking about the red people, the white people, our Island race; all that crap. Those racial and cultural arguments give power, and they really did sit that on top of the real Canada. People whisper don’t be ridiculous, how could that happen? Well that’s where you simply don’t understand what it was like to be alive then.  The British empire and the French empire decided everything. Today American movies, or American fast food — these are tiny things, nothing compared to those empires. Queen Victoria was left-handed, that’s why napkins go on the left, you know. There was a big argument over how you set the table. There’s a British way of setting a table and a French way. The whole world was divided up on how to set a table. I’m being funny, right? Which system of law do you use, civil code or common law? So there was no escaping it. It was so dominant, much more dominant than globalization which is amateur night at the Bijiou compared with those guys.

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What about the terms, we use the term diversity, multiculturalism. What do you use?

I’ve never liked multiculturalism because I’ve always considered it to be an old-fashioned, clunky term, and thought of it as pretty Austro-Hungarian. Austria-Hungary was ahead of Europe in many ways; it did have minorities living under a single emperor, they each had their rights but it was a sort of mediaeval structure. They were pods, and what kept them apart and held them together was the emperor. That’s not what multiculturalism is. It’s not a series of cultures. It’s not the melting pot either. So what is it? It’s kind of multiple personalities, and overlapping cultures. I think the  French Canadian interculturalism is a better term because they do penetrate each other. People worry that this means things are disappearing. But it isn’t about whether things are pure or have melted into each other; it’s about complexity. Let people work out the kind of complexity they want to live with.

The essential nature of Canada is that it’s complicated. And the reason I say that is because I am so bored listening endlessly to people saying — Why can’t we just be patriotic like the Americans?  Well, actually, the reason we can’t is that we don’t want to. Because we aren’t like that. It’s very complicated here and we actually enjoy the complexity. And every time a group succeeds in putting a proposition for simplicity into the centre of the public debate we get in deep trouble. We have race riots or racist laws, or enormous national crises –  Live with complexity. Nothing wrong with complexity.

I do like the idea of giving ourselves permission to be who we are. To accept that Canada is, in fact, a work-in-progress.

There’s nothing wrong with that. You see the Westphalian idea is — here’s the sacred territory, and God has put the sacred people on the sacred territory, with the sacred myth and the sacred religion and the sacred language and are we happy and pure. And the sacred race, did I say that? And then we notice some dust over there, we go brush off the dust and it happens to be 50,000 gypsies. Then there’s a rock over there, we have to destroy that, that turned out to be a village filled with a German religious minority. They’re just endlessly at work purifying. And they kill millions and millions of people, and ban languages, all in the name of a centralized, unified idea of purity.

Do you suppose these were informal relations?  Or just a instances of people just getting on?

No they had relationships that were formal. If you read the diaries and memoirs of people who travelled about,  “…Went into Timmins where there were some Swampy Cree, and met the daughter of the Hudson’s Bay factor who’s Scottish, and the daughter of the Cree chief”, they describe how they all lived together. When you read this you realize there were social structures and they related to each other and there was a certain amount of acceptance. It wasn’t all that formal, but there were actual agreements about who would do what, where and  how people would move, and how a society would be structured.

I also think there’s a sort of Aboriginal nature to the immigration settlement patterns that’s hard to put your finger on. Where did these ideas come from? When 50,000 Loyalists arrived, you can give this post-facto European interpretation that there weren’t many people living in Upper Canada, there weren’t many people in Nova Scotia, and so they were given land. But how did they convince themselves to hand out the land that way? This wasn’t what was happening elsewhere. And they were giving equipment and 200 acres to unmarried women, for example! They just made this stuff up, and obviously they felt comfortable doing it this way. It was not done on the basis of class, not on the basis of the standard buying and selling and ownership. So where did they get this co-operative idea? How did that happen? Well, it just seemed to be what worked there. Well why did it work there? Well, because it’s very tough there. Yes, well where did the ideas come from? Well, it seems…

And then you gradually start to see it comes out of these long term relationships between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals and how they made things function. It’s not that difficult because it’s in effect how human beings do stuff. But  it becomes difficult when you then take British common law and try to say…wait a minute, under common law this is what you would do.

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One powerful point you make is that we didn’t all come from dominant cultures, but were largely minorities in the countries we left. It’s definitely obvious now….

I think it was always obvious. Again there was this lie in the late 19th century when people wanted to pretend that they were English, not German, not Jewish, and that we were all middle class. Whereas the reality is this country was not the place of choice. On the other hand, they were people who’d suffered greatly and were pretty tough and were pretty driven. They came and if they stayed they found a way.

Why has it taken so long for us to see this as a strength?

Well, because of what I’ve been saying. We allowed this imposing of the imperial and European myth in the late 19th and we’re still struggling with that. That’s why I’m sometimes not very popular. You’re struggling with a myth that’s not helping us. And it’s not our myth. We were not born of war. Sure we’ve done our wars, but we weren’t born of war. So don’t try and stick this on top like we’re a little England or little France or United States. Canada was not born at Vimy. Canada did not became a nation through the shedding of blood. That is such horrible European blood-based argument for the nation state. That’s not what’s made Canada; that’s not how Francophones, and Anglophones and the Aboriginals lived together — by killing each other. That’s not how we did it. So this is yet another attempt to go back to those European myths and to re-impose the old Colonial myths on the country.

I’ve been thinking about Europe’s experience with multiculturalism, and how difficult it is to do if you are an empire or even an ex-empire.

It really does go back to the creation of these monolithic nation states. They call it the Enlightenment, and there were some good things, obviously. But what no one wants to say openly is that the model chosen was a mistake. Did it produce some good literature, sure; did it in the end produce some social democratic programs, sure. But it was an anti-humanist model, although humanism never disappeared, so why would we want to impose on ourselves a failed European model when they killed 100 million of their own in less than half of the 20th century in a final bloodbath of the model? Why would we want that? So that we can have empty churches and palaces to wander around in and admire? I’m not criticizing the architecture or saying the food is bad, I m talking about the civilizational model, the political model.

Do you think we have come to recognize it and believe in it more?

We have to believe we have a model. And that’s one of the reasons I talk very carefully in my books about the Canadian civilization; not to say the Canadian model, is better but to say we are actually doing something here on purpose, not by mistake. It’s intention, it’s not an accident. If you know what  you’re doing works then it should not be unconsciously intentional but consciously intentional.

 

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In our lifetime, things have changed in ways that would have appalled our grandparents, huge social change has occurred without bloodshed, in a civilized manner.

That’s because the collective unconscious was there. And that’s because these forces were at play in the country. Again we have imposed French civilization, we’ve imposed English civilization and everything is hidden underneath.  The fact is here you could never really do that, it was always flowing, it was always disorganized and people were always going in and out of the cities.  This fluidity of the civilization carried on in spite of the racist laws. There were these waves of new immigrants coming in, and you know at some point down the pike they’re going start weaving into the whole society. Because we’re not a formal class-based society. You couldn’t keep the third generation Ukrainians in their villages outside Winnipeg; they’re going to leave and come to Winnipeg and then they’re going to vote. And the next thing you know, you going to have a Ukrainian mayor. And there you are. It’s that fluidity and that complexity.

On last question. Idle No More. Where do you think that will go.

The way I look at it is very simply that there’s a comeback that started with the 170,000 remaining Aboriginals in Canada in 1900-1910. They started building — you can actually trace it from around 1900, the lowest point  — they start building political institutions, volunteering in the war, all this stuff. Defeat, defeat, small victories, big defeats, and population growth. And here they are on their way back to 2 million, and here we have a political event that lasted 3 months and people say, “oh they’re divided”, or “we’ll wait and they’ll go away” and they’re completely misunderstanding about what’s happening.

And what’s happening is this: They’re coming back. And they’re not going away, and there are going to be more and more of them, and they’re going to win more and more court cases. So what your classic Parliament Hill journalist thought was division is actually a discussion going on inside the Aboriginal community. Do I think it odd that some people on the street vote Liberal and some vote Conservative, do I think that means Canada doesn’t work? Are Aboriginal not allowed to have multiple ideas? Do they think about it in the same way [as non-Aboriginals do]?

Very specifically, the meeting about who would see the Prime Minister and who wouldn’t go. One AFN chief didn’t go in solidarity with Chief Spence. The press said the AFN was riven down the centre and the national chief finished. Well the next day the chief was available for interview, and he said. “No, I didn’t go to the meeting out of solidarity with Chief Spence. That doesn’t mean that we’re divided, it doesn’t mean I am against the national chief. It just means I didn’t go to the meeting out of solidarity with Chief Spence.” Everybody  was trying to read a very simple meaning into it; there’s not a simple meaning, it’s a complicated meaning. And they’re just going to keep moving on.

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