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"A Warning, an Illustration, a Demonstration"

John Ralston Saul on Idle No More and Indigenous rights

by Dru Oja Jay

Saul promoting his book A Fair Country in 2008. photo: watchmojo
Saul promoting his book A Fair Country in 2008. photo: watchmojo
John Ralston Saul is a member of the Canadian establishment by any definition. He helped set up the national oil company Petro-Canada in the 1970s, is a best-selling author and essayist, and his spouse Adrienne Clarkson served as Governor General. What distinguishes Saul is an intellectual independence uncharacteristic of his peers.
 
Saul's most recent book expresses, among other things, a point of view that one generally doesn't expect from a former Vice-Regal Consort: that Canada's Indigenous people should control what happens on their lands. A sample of his reasoning, from 2008's A Fair Country:
Put aside for a moment the Crown's legal obligations. Do any of the civil servants and lawyers who are dragging out these negotiations, do any of the urban dwellers who worry about the Aboriginals getting control over large stretches of land, do the boards of directors of any commodity corporations involved on these lands or their CEOs or various vice-presidents, do any of them want to move to these areas, establish themselves permanently there, in order to develop multi-generational policies and infrastructures that will serve expanding communities? No. Therefore, we should be grateful that Aboriginals are willing to do so. 
Saul's is a vision that goes beyond remorse and compensation without denying the need for either. Amazingly, he also manages to avoid paternalistic attitudes which saturate Canadian politics and discourse when it comes to Indigenous peoples.
 
Critically minded readers might notice that Saul's writing has a tendency to minimize the role of social movements, protest, and social unrest in driving historical reforms, while crediting "reformer" politicians and intellectuals. Whether one agrees with his approach or not, however, Saul has played an undeniable role in popularizing the decolonization of Canada, even if he would probably prefer to call it something else.
 
The Media Co-op spoke to Mr. Saul by telephone. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
 
In 2008, you published A Fair Country, in which you make strong arguments for recognizing the rights of Canada's First Nations to self-government and control of their land. Could you share some of the response that you've heard in the five years since you published the book to these ideas in particular?
 
Those things are there, but the central argument of the book is that non-Aboriginals set up an interpretation of the country which wrote the Aboriginals out. The reality of Canada is that it was largely put together – from 1600 until some point in the second half of the 19th century, or the 20th century if you're further north -- with a very active and strong role being played by First Nations, Métis and Inuit. They had an enourmous influence on what the country would become, on the way Canadians would think of themselves, the way Canadians would act, how they would conceive of what they were doing. 
 
We're having difficulty making sense of ourselves today because the reference points that we have come from the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly pointing to English, American and French messages, and those don't really lead us to who we are. They make us more and more confused about, for example, why we do immigration the way we do immigration. We can't find an explanation for that in the places that our traditional history or mythology sends us. To my amazement, most people reacted very positively. They felt that it told them something about themselves that they felt, but hadn't know how to express. That's the way that they want to think of themselves. Not as descendents of England or France, but as a Métis people.
 
You do also argue that First Nations should have autonomy and rights to their land. 
 
I think I'm making a broader argument than that. I'm saying that Canadian legal and political structures, generally starting in the 1870s, betrayed the treaties. They acted as if they treaties were not treaties, but agreements to subjection. They wrote out the role of Aboriginals. Canada's treaties go right back to the Peace of Montreal and the Royal Proclamation. We pretended as if something else was happening and we could do what we wanted and we could ignore these obligations. An example is that even today, the Federal Government spends less on a First Nations child's education than the provincial governments spend on non-Aboriginal children. So all of that is deeply embarassing, something to be ashamed of if you're a citizen. We have to deal with that in a – generous is the wrong word, because it implies a sort of paternalism. It isn't about working out whether it's about 9 million or 10 million. Our side, this utilitarian failure and betrayal, has to be dealt with openly and rapidly. 
 
And is that something that people have agreed with, in the five years since you wrote the book?
 
I think that people hear the argument, and I think they have no problem with it. The difficulty, as you know, is getting the argument out there that way. If it doesn't get out that way, then people get fixated on a specific, which might be about "well, is that place being properly managed?" There are all the specific arguments which are used, and have been used now for over a century to justify not dealing with these issues.
 
There have been in place, since we stopped really respecting the relationship properly, all sorts of justifications for breaking the treaties. For example, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made up a rule, which it said was a law, which said that no First Nations person could leave their reserve without permission from a representative of the department. This was completely made up by the department. They lied, and said that they had the right to enforce it.
 
There's a phrase that's used often in Western Canada, but you'll hear public meetings start that way. Someone will ask "who are the treaty people?" And the answer is "we are the treaty people," because of course treaties are signed by two groups. Treaties don't bring obligation to one group, they bring obligation to all of the signatories. 
 
Idle No More appears to be the biggest native protest movement since 1990. Given the arguments you make, what has been your reaction to seeing this?
 
I think it's great. But there was a very Ottawa press corps approach to all of this, which said that Idle No More was divided within itself. My view is a little different. These months have been a warning, an illustration, and a demonstration of where things are going. We now have an extremely impressive leadership group in the Aboriginal world. You just look at the doctors, the businessmen, the professors, the philosophers. It's amazing. This is one of the most impressive leadership groups in Canada. They remind me very much of the Francophones in the 1960s: young, lean, angry with very good reason, and they want to change things. All of these people coming forward at the same time, with slightly different positions. 
 
Forget about the arguing and the disagreements; what's really interesting is the weight of the group, the size of the group, the self-confidence of the group coming forward and saying we are not satisfied with the situation as it is, and it has to move forward very fast. The point is, they're getting stronger all the time, and if we delay another five years, the next time there's a blowup, it will be even angrier, and the possibility of reasonable arrangements might have been lost, because there will be an even greater sense of betrayal.
 
The Supreme Court has made decision after decision, in cases which have basically been an Aboriginal cause against a level of government or several levels, Almost without exception, the Supreme Court has gone back to fundamental obligations and come down on the side of the Aboriginals. They've hardly lost a case! Whether it's Delgamuukw, or the obligation to consult, or the honour of the crown, there's a whole list of them. The official position of Canada has been to pretend that this isn't happening, not to come to terms with what the decisions of the Supreme Court actually mean for where Canada is going, and what the role of Aboriginal peoples is. 
 
They're just sort of hoping no one will notice. "Oh right, well the obligation to consult, what does that mean, that's very vague?" So then there's a further clarification. And they say "oh, that's still very vague." And they just delay, prevaricate, and not face up to the fact that we have to deal with these things. These things are not window dressing, they're real. They have to do with where Canada's going, what Canada is going to look like, and what the role of Aboriginal peoples is going to be inside this country. 
 
It would seems that there might be some underlying economic reasons -- the strength of the mining industy, the oil industry -- behind this reticence to deal with the issue that you're talking about. What do you make of the political challenges, and how to overcome that?
 
There may be some truth to that, but I think that the opposite could also be argued. The politics is lagging in many ways behind business, because the last thing that some of the extraction firms want is to have their work held up because there's a lack of agreement, and many of the corporations have realized that these are very serious partners, and they have to learn how to work with them. In some cases, they are. It was very interesting, there was a Premier in British Columbia who came to power on an almost anti-First Nations campaign. He was going to throw the Nisga'a Agreement into the air, and he was going to hold a referendum in which people would speak out against pandering to First Nations. No sooner was the election over than the business leaders came to see the Premier and said "you know, we don't really want to have a fight with First Nations over this kind of stuff, because it's very very bad for business; we really don't want you to go down this road." He softened the referendum, making it meaningless, and became a relatively positive negotiator with First Nations people. I think what's happening out there is more complicated.
 
So would you argue that there's a stronger cultural component in terms of our unwillingness to confront the obligations?
 
Some of it is habit. It's also a lack of willpower to do it differently, to say "this really matters, and if we don't deal with this, it's very bad for Canada in and of itself." It's bad for our reputation internationally. It shows a lack of respect for our own citizens. Getting it to the front of the line is one of the biggest problems. The events of the last couple of months have been very good, because it did help to get Canadians really seriously talking about it.
 
So to the extent that there are Canadians out there who support Idle No More, who support the kinds of things you're calling for  the obligations, the land rights  what would you say to them, what could they be most effectively doing?
 
First of all, I think there was a very positive response. What I was hearing from around the country from very different sorts of people was "there are major issues here, we don't really understand them, they haven't been properly explained to us." It's hard to get this stuff through in a new way so people really understand it. I don't even blame anybody in particular. It's tough because non-Aboriginal Canadians are not seeing it in their house every day, so they don't quite understand it. But we're starting to understand that there is a major issue here. I don't think it's about whether they were for or against Idle No More, or the Assembly of First Nations. The larger issue was raised, and they realize there's a problem.
 
You spoke about trying to get these ideas across, and how difficult that is. What do you see as being the hope for those kinds of ideas getting out there?
 
I think they are getting out there. When I wrote A Fair Country, I thought I was going to get a lot of flak -- not that I mind. Instead, there was an enourmous level of agreement on many things which I believe very strongly, and which I thought it was going to be harder to convince people of. I was amazed that in a place like Toronto, there would be a thousand people, and they're basically in agreement. They're saying "how do we do this?" I think that Canadians are getting to that point. But I think they're ready, if they can just figure out how to make it happen. It's a big issue for the press, for politicians, for universities, for everyone who is in a position to help lead a public discussion. There's a task at hand, and I think it's maybe the most important task we have. Certainly one of the two or three.
 
In your book, and I was surprised to see this, you present in quite favourable terms someone like Peter Munk, who is the head of a resources extraction company (Barrick Gold) which many would argue is doing the same things globally and also in Canada in terms of the rights of the people who live on the land and so on. I was wondering if you see any tension there?
 
First of all, tension isn't a bad thing. I've always argued that if you don't have tension, you really can't get anything done. The point of the argument I was making in that part of the book is that Canada has been pretty weak in some of its leadership areas, and that we need very strong leadership in business. Does that mean that one agrees with everything? No, but at least you're dealing with people with whom you can have a real negotiation. If it turns out that they're doing some things that are unacceptable, then you deal with that. But that's completely different from the kind of amorphous, bland situation where you can never quite figure out why things aren't happening, or why you can't make changes, because nobody's taking responsibility and nobody's taking risks. 
 
So if you like, the counterpoint to the question you're asking is what I just told you about some of the business leadership in British Columbia. Are they good people or bad people? Do you agree with them or disagree with them? I don't think either of those are quite the right question. The more interesting thing is that they're smart enough to realize that we're no longer in an era where we can simply roll over First Nations' rights, and that you have to deal with them seriously. Then you can get into a conversation about how, to what extent and in what way. But you can no longer pretend that they're a minor force. They're a major force.
 
Aboriginals are a group of people who were 2 million for centuries, plummeted to 175,000 for a bunch of reasons, and are on their way back to 2 million. They've got the treaties behind them, they've got the Supreme Court behind them, they have a very sophisticated leadership, they're going to play a bigger and bigger role socially, politically and economically in Canada, and that's all good. So let's stop thinking of it as a problem, and start thinking of it as an astonishing opportunity to engage with ourselves again, as we really are. 
 
You also argue for cooperation. I'm curious what you see as the trajectory of cooperation in the current political climate. What kinds of developments have you seen since the book came out?
 
The co-op movement obviously has some roots in Europe, in the US and so on, so you can trace that. But the Canadian taste for the small-c cooperative approach has its roots deeply in the pre-European immigrant period and in what happened when people came here first from Europe and other places. There's a whole atmosphere in the country, you know, this is a tough country, that has been very poor for most of its history, and there's this enormous tradition of cooperation. It doesn't mean that it replaces our hard-edged extraction industry tradition or whatever; there's room for many traditions in a country. But we have this fundamental cooperative tradition. A lot of that comes out immigrants' experience over hundreds of years with Aboriginals, being dependent on them, working with them. 
 
I've been speaking to gatherings of cooperatives over the years, and the change has been fascinating. Probably ten years ago, the cooperative movement was in this phase of "we shouldn't be quite so non-profit, maybe we have to be more like other businesses, maybe we have to imitate business managerial schools more." They were getting into deeper and deeper trouble, losing their road. What I've noticed is that they're not just coming back to the cooperative idea, they're becoming more comfortable with the idea that there's a Canadian approach towards cooperation, which has some European roots, but it also has this other element, which has to do with Aboriginal geography, climate, and diversity of population. 
 
Cooperation in some form is going to play a bigger and bigger role in the country, and I think that's very good for us. I think that that's a way that we can deal with small populations isolated across the country, smaller communities, geographical size -- all the things that don't fit into the classic economic theories of density of population and what you can do, what you think you can do, with dense populations.
 
I want to come back to the question of what you think Canadians should be doing.
 
We have to honestly look at ourselves and talk among ourselves and ask, what are the priorities, how do we make this civilization of ours work better? We have to face all the things we haven't done on the Aboriginal front. We have to say we want to deal with this; we want to sit down with the Aboriginal leadership, we want to listen to what the people who are protesting are saying. We want to be part of this conversation, and we want to start resolving some of the easy things, like putting the right amount of money into the education of Aboriginal kids. 
 
Perhaps we have to admit to ourselves that if this country isn't in an economic crisis today, it's because we're lucky enough to be sitting on one of the richest commodities countries in the world. All of that land is outside of the big cities. We are not Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, and Edmonton. If you take away that commodities richness, we're a very poor country. That richness is lying out there on Aboriginal lands, on crown lands, near small communities. These are all places that are not getting the attention that they deserve, partly because so many of us live in cities and we're sort of voting for the things that we think are the modern and mainstream things of Canada. The fact that they're out of sight is not a justification for them living in conditions which are not acceptable. We need to act on that, and support movement in that direction.

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dru (Dru Oja Jay)
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Writer, organizer, Media Co-op co-founder. Co-author of Paved with Good Intentions and Offsetting Resistance.

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