Against incredible odds, Aboriginal people are creating a new version of Canada. John Saul says the rest of us can either lend a hand or get out of the way.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra is blessed with the gift of prophecy, then cursed by never having her predictions believed. I thought of Cassandra as I read John Ralston Saul’s latest book of prophecy, The Comeback: How Aboriginals Are Reclaiming Power and Influence (Penguin Group Canada). Aboriginal rights is “the great unresolved Canadian question upon which history will judge us all,” intones Saul in his most prophetic voice. And it is Aboriginal people themselves, he argues, who are in the process of resolving this great issue. We—and I write, like Saul, as a non-Aboriginal—can either help them, or get out of the way. In the words of another prophet, Eldridge Cleaver, we can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. Either way it is Aboriginals who are writing the “new narrative” for Canada. That is Saul’s prophecy; it remains to be seen how it will be acted upon.
Saul, who is probably the country’s highest-profile public intellectual, has a remarkable career trajectory as a writer. Beginning in the 1970s as the author of a series of international thrillers, he later produced philosophical tomes about the nature of Western civilization and then, most recently, turned his attention to the importance of Canada’s Aboriginal past in forming its present identity. Along the way he has been an oil-company executive, a consort to a Governor General, a human rights activist and probably a dozen other things. The Comeback is an extension of his earlier book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada in which he argues that Canada’s European past is far less important to its present than its indigenous roots; that we are a “Metis nation” whose prevailing ethos is shaped more by Aboriginal ideas than European ones.
The “comeback” that Saul identifies in this new book emphasizes the strides that Aboriginal people have made in reversing years of population decline and cultural oppression. As recently as seventy years ago it was widely assumed that “Indians” were disappearing, the victims of disease, starvation and their own ineptitude for modern civilization. Today we know how wrong that idea was. Canada’s Aboriginal population is growing in numbers and its cultural and political self-confidence seems boundless. In Saul’s view, this observation, while obvious to anyone who studies the history, nonetheless needs hammering home. We are far more used to hearing about the dismal lives of Aboriginal people—their family dysfunction, their crime rates, their impoverished communities—than we are to being told they are a success story. Today’s Aboriginal population, for all the problems that afflict it, has overcome incredible disadvantages to achieve what Saul calls “a position of power, influence and civilizational creativity” in Canadian society.
In Saul’s view, our fixation on the negative, even when we mean well, is a “new form of racism.” It evokes sympathy, but sympathy is not what is needed; solutions are, and solutions require the recognition of rights. This is, he believes, the only basis for a meaningful discussion of reconciliation. It is time to stop feeling bad and get down to the job of negotiating treaty rights. He compares today’s situation vis-à-vis Aboriginal rights with the 1960s in Quebec, when Canadians seized an opportunity to right historical wrongs in that province. In the same way that a French-speaking elite took control of its own society during the “Quiet Revolution,” Saul believes that a new generation of educated, activist Aboriginals is ready to lead the First Nations to a new partnership with non-Aboriginals.
In Saul’s opinion the thing that is frustrating the new narrative is the failure of government to engage honestly with the Aboriginal reality. Government wants to blame Aboriginal people—for living in remote communities, for electing corrupt chiefs, for failing to educate their young. But these problems that seem to afflict Aboriginal people are not their problems, argues Saul; they are our problems, because we caused them and are not doing enough to solve them. Saul scolds government at all levels for a complete failure of leadership: “All of them, of all sorts, over an extended period of time.” That said, he is most judgmental about Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who he believes “is emotionally unable to engage in open, transparent conversations about these issues.” (Anyone who saw Mr. Harper’s end-of-year television interview with the CBC, in which he stone-facedly said that the missing and murdered Aboriginal women were not high on his government’s agenda, cannot help but agree with Saul’s assessment.)
There are echoes of the “Noble Savage” in Saul’s argument. Seventeenth-century philosophers used an idealized image of the innocent, virtuous North American Indian as a stick with which to beat the supposed depravities of their own societies. In the same way Saul argues that Aboriginal culture has given Canada everything it has of any value, from multiculturalism to democracy to egalitarianism to a preference for negotiation over violence. And he is a bit ingenuous when it comes to suggesting solutions. It is easy, he seems to say, if only government would show some initiative and good will. But if years of negotiation on these issues has taught us anything, it is that solutions are not easy.
Nonetheless there is also a whole lot of good sense and astute observation in The Comeback. For one thing Saul reminds us that political change is driven from the streets, not from legislatures. Idle No More, the Occupy movement, the 2012 Quebec student protests, all indicate to Saul “a growing rejection of politics as we know it.” Taking the long view, he notes that Canada has a history of popular protest going all the way back to the 1837 rebellions. Women’s rights, the environmental movement, the peace movement, they all rejected the top-down managerialism of politics as usual in favour of direct action, and Saul sees Idle No More as the inheritor of that tradition.
Recent mainstream discussion of Aboriginal issues in Canada has been driven by the three Rs: remorse, recognition and reconciliation. We are sorry for what has happened; we recognize the injustices of the past; we need to get past them to build a new future together. But it is time to move the discussion along, to actually resolve some of the issues by sharing power and resources. This is the logic of Saul’s argument, as it is in another new book about Aboriginal rights, by the Dene political scientist Glen Sean Coulthard. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (University of Minnesota Press) is a densely academic and therefore much less readable book than The Comeback, but Coulthard deserves the same attention that the much better known Saul attracts. He argues that reconciliation is a false hope, that it may be impossible to reconcile Aboriginal aspirations for nationhood within the present system of power relationships. For all the talk of reconciliation, Aboriginals are at an inherent disadvantage because they don’t set the terms of the discussion. Coulthard believes that Indigenous people must engage with the Canadian state but they must do so with an increased insistence that their own legal and political traditions form the basis of the discussion.
Canadians would like to believe that reconciliation means forgive and forget. These two books burst that balloon. Saul and Coulthard propose a new narrative of Canadian history in which non-Aboriginals will have to recognize that our society is fundamentally shaped by Aboriginal culture and come to terms with a much greater level of power sharing than we so far have contemplated.