From The Bookshelf: John Ralston Saul, “A Fair Country”
A couple of days ago I wrapped up my annual Christmas holiday in Victoria by flying to Vancouver and then Beijing, untroubled (since I wasn’t US-bound) by any paranoid nonsense about not using the washroom during the last hour of the flight. While in transit I finished reading one of the books I’d received for Christmas, John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country.
I have to admit that my expectations were not high, based on my disappointing perusal several years ago of Saul’s On Equilibrium. I don’t remember that earlier work in any detail, but I certainly recall my overall impression, which was of an erudite but haphazard stew of wide-ranging quotations, facts and anecdotes that rarely coalesced into coherent and persuasive arguments.
By this standard, A Fair Country was actually a pleasant surprise, in that large parts of the book turned out to make perfect sense. Unfortunately, the part that largely fails to make sense is the one that seems to have received the most attention, namely Saul’s insistence that Canada is “a métis civilization” inhabited by “people of Aboriginal inspiration”. This is a tough argument to make about a Westminster-style democracy whose people overwhelmingly speak European languages, profess either Christianity or no religion at all, and have little or no aboriginal blood.
So what on Earth can Saul possibly mean when he asserts that Canada is a métis civilization? Well, he thinks that some fairly subtle traits that are supposedly characteristic of Canada, such as acceptance of “non-monolithic” racial and cultural diversity, are the result of aboriginal influence. In virtually every case the supporting evidence is vague and unconvincing, and the arguments sometimes drift off into weird little eddies of self-contradiction.
In a chapter on environmentalism, for example, Saul argues that aboriginal culture includes “a philosophy in which humans are a part of nature, not a species chosen to master it”, and that our inheritance of this mindset might explain why Canada has produced environmental champions like David Suzuki and Greenpeace. This is plausible, but hard to demonstrate conclusively, and in fact Saul barely tries. Worse yet, the chapter goes on to chide Canadians for partly ignoring the aboriginal perspective and, as a result, developing the tar sands in a fundamentally irresponsible “European-style, nineteenth-century, mid-Industrial Revolution way”. Gasp – those horrid Europeans, so unlike virtuous aboriginals! Continuing to harp on the tar sands, however, Saul warns that “environmentally sensitive countries such as Norway, Sweden and Denmark will classify us with the Russians as unreliable, perhaps even dangerous custodians.” It seems to have escaped his notice that environmentally sensitive Norwegians, Swedes and Danes are, well, Europeans.
However, A Fair Country improves as it moves away from aboriginal matters. In the second major section of the book Saul explains how the verbal formula “peace, welfare and good government”, which was a staple of early documents such as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, evolved in meaning over many years only to be abruptly replaced by the “peace, order and good government” of the British North America Act. It’s hardly surprising that Saul has a clear preference for welfare, which he insists on interpreting primarily as fairness, over the more authoritarian concept of order.
The book’s last major section is amusingly entitled “The Castrati.” This is an unflattering reference to Canada’s elites, whom Saul regards as insecure, dysfunctional and incapable of taking decisive action for the good of the country. They are supposedly “colonial” in their excessive deference to outside powers, particularly the United States, although in my opinion a word like “subservient” would better describe this unfortunate mindset. However, it’s hard to argue with Saul when he says that we are too passive in allowing foreigners to gain control of strategically important Canadian industries and that our leaders live in a pathetic fear of being perceived as anti-American, besides being “terrified of the sort of intelligent debate the citizenry long for”.
Saul’s diagnosis of the malady behind these symptoms, however, is less convincing. He puts primary blame on “the belief in order not welfare” and “the incapacity to recognize the aboriginal core of our civilization”, throwing in for good measure our “utilitarian economic ideology” (which seems to refer more to globalization than to capitalism per se) and the rise of Quebec separatism. I’ll give him the last two, but welfare in its various senses has an enormous role in our public discourse and I simply don’t believe that the core of our civilization is aboriginal at all. If we want a stronger, more self-confident Canada that stands taller in the world and expects better of its leadership, we might do better to seek our inspiration in precisely those European traditions and habits of thought that Saul seems so strangely desperate to repudiate. Perhaps the Castrati ought to read more Nietzsche.