SpruceRoots Magazine - February 2002

SpruceRoots Magazine - April 2003

THE CONSCIOUS CIVILIZATION an interview with John Ralston Saul

While accompanying Governor General Adrienne Clarkson during her visit to Haida Gwaii last September, His Excellency John Ralston Saul delivered a public lecture to Islanders at the Visitor Information Center in Queen Charlotte on the subject of Leadership and the Environment. The lecture was the first in the Gowgaia Institute's Speakers' Series, and tied together a broad range of subjects including democracy, Canadian history, the commodities industry, the environmental and aboriginal rights movements, politics and society. In a telephone interview with Spruceroots' Ian Lordon in December, His Excellency found time to answer some questions raised by the lecture from Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Ian Lordon: You mentioned that Canada was the third oldest democracy after England and Belgium, what about the United States?

John Ralston Saul: Usually not included interestingly enough by social scientists. I don't know why, I guess that they feel that it's very difficult to be considered a democracy if your society is constructed on slavery. That's really the problem.

IL: Well then Canada shouldn't really be considered a democracy given that Aboriginals weren't given the vote until 1960.

JRS: There are all sorts of flaws. I think there's a difference between exclusion, and there are all sorts of exclusions, we had these terrible exclusions. Actually the Aboriginals had the vote and we took it away. In fact, John A. MacDonald spoke up in favour of them keeping it. But equally women as property owners, which in those days is how you had the vote, as property owners, had the vote and that was also taken away. So all of these nineteenth century democracies were very, very flawed. And I think one of the ways people try to decide has this become a democracy was to ask first was there responsible government? And secondly, was there a reasonable percentage of the population that had the right to vote? A critical mass. And of course over the next hundred years the excluded groups are eventually included. It doesn't make it a pretty picture, that's the way it was done. It was an ugly picture of which one should be ashamed, but I think that is different from actually constructing a society on the basis of slavery. It's important to remember it was very consciously done because of the way the Declaration of Independence was rewritten, and the constitution was rewritten, in both cases to consciously include slavery. And then of course at the end of the civil war yet again the Supreme Court acted with political support to institute a legal form of slavery. So I think that's the reason. In these historical things there are no easy answers and there are no innocent people.

IL: Speaking strictly about our own democracy here, and more or less contemporary democracy I guess, one of the complaints you often hear from opponents of the movement to restore aboriginal rights is that it creates two classes of citizens, one with more rights than the other. My question to you is, do you think there's some basis to the complaint? And if there is, how do you reconcile native rights in a democratic society founded on principles of equality?

JRS: Well, first of all democracy in Canada has never been based on principles of equality. It has been based on principles of egalitarianism. Usually in the history of Canada when the cry goes up for equality it usually means a majority wishes to enforce its power over a minority. It's a very interesting little part of the collective unconscious of Canadian society, words that sort of pop up. Dalton McCarthy and the Equality Party, which was essentially the Orange Order seeking to take power away from Catholics, to just take one example. And if you go back to the hard grit movement around the time of Confederation again the concept of equality was really about Protestants getting power over Catholics. So the word equality in Canadian politics has often meant the unrestrained power of the majority over the minority.

Egalitarianism is a much different, more complex term. It's not about counting up the numbers, it's about at the end of the day how does it work out? And what we've found in Canada is that we do best when we have a multiplicity of approaches. We have the federal government, the provincial government, but we've always had some form of other levels of government whether they be municipal or reserve or territories. You start looking at it and you see that we've always had three, four, five, six approaches towards how to govern. And one of the fascinating things about Canadians is their ability to take what look like contradictory and impossible amounts of different levels of government and live with them quite happily. So what was, in the abstract, a great deal of concern from people who didn't live there about the Nisga'a Agreement before the agreement was in place basically disappeared because people just got on with their lives and nobody felt like anything had been taken away from them. People knew somehow that these different levels of government would happily overlap and people would find their place, they would find out what to use where. I think that there will always be problems attached to this and they will not always necessarily be problems to the advantage of the Aboriginals. We only have to look at the current system. But gradually we work our way through. The people who believe that democracies are about majorities and efficiency will be unhappy, but the people who believe that they're about people finding a way to live together will think it's okay. And that's where the concept of egalitarianism comes in, because what it means is you have to do things differently in different places in order to come up with the same results for everybody.

I mean let's take something simple like public education. If I were to take the equality model, like the model they use in France, everybody will learn the same thing at the same time of day and be treated the same way. Then what that would actually do would be to put immigrants at a great disadvantage. So you go into our schools, we're bringing in a couple of hundred thousand immigrants every year, and you have those special programs which deal with the needs of those immigrants. That's not equality, that's egalitarianism. That gives them the possibility to have the same rights as the others. And I could give you dozens of examples.

IL: You also mentioned that Canada was founded on three nations.

JRS: Three, not nations, I don't really call them nations. I talk about founding pillars, foundations. And I usually say Aboriginal, Francophone, and Anglophone. And I actually avoid the classic terms because the classic terms are attached to race or language or religion or whatever. I think people can deal more easily with Aboriginal, Francophone, and Anglophone. A lot of those Anglophones were Jewish and black, a lot of those Francophones were Catholic-Scots or Metis.

IL: So maybe three cultures then?

JRS: Well I guess you could say three cultures, I simply say three pillars.

IL: Okay, well, you discussed the cooperation that existed at times between the three and when you did it brought up one of my personal issues, and one that I'm confronted with here, which is how can the two recent arrivals, the two settling pillars, feel at ease that this foundation or these pillars were established upon what is often described as stolen land? I mean, isn't this shaky ground to be building a foundation upon?

JRS: Well I think the fascinating thing is that the aboriginal peoples have spent a lot of time explaining their position to the immigrants, and I guess you and I are part of that. And when you go back through the last hundred or two hundred years you find these remarkable things and they remain remarkably similar, it's interesting, from aboriginal leaders explaining the situation. What's fascinating is it is almost always an inclusive argument and a cooperative argument. And my sense is that events of all sorts, a great wave or tide if you like, is taking us back to a situation where Aboriginals will be playing a central role in Canadian society again. They already are in many places, and they are increasingly in other places. And so that's the reality of Canadian society. The historic reality is coming back and as a result of that we will find our way. If one listens to what the aboriginal leaders are saying, I'm not talking about the negotiations I'm talking about the general tone of what they're saying to the rest of the country, it's extremely cooperative and inclusive discourse. And for those who listen I don't think they need to be disturbed, we just need to find out how to make that work.

To put it in slightly blunter terms, we're very fortunate that on the vast majority of lands in this country where a very small minority of people wish to live, that those who do wish to live there form a population made of Aboriginals and non-aboriginals who've chosen to become citizens of those places. Those who come to stay, not to come and exploit and to leave. And a lot of the future of the country is going to be built on the cooperation between the people who have chosen to live on that land which is the vast majority of the Canadian land. And that's what is so exciting about what seems to be happening on Haida Gwaii.

IL: I guess what I'm trying to get at with those two questions are what I feel are the two solitudes in the debate around land and title and the historical injustices which may or may not be acknowledged.

JRS: Do you think it's such a solitude? I mean, the Supreme Courts been pretty clear on the subject. I don't want to interfere or anything but the Supreme Court has made some pretty clear statements on the subject, so have other courts, almost nothing has been said by the courts that would lead in the opposite direction so now the country is feeling its way towards how to deal with that, how to come to terms with itself. And that's a healthy process. It's a difficult process, but it's a healthy process.

IL: It's certainly one that makes me feel very optimistic.

JRS: Yes, it doesn't mean it's easy but it's happening. In September we were in northwestern Ontario, in Dryden, Kenora, Thunder Bay, and interestingly enough you can see exactly the same thing happening. You see on the one hand large and growing aboriginal populations and on the other hand non-aboriginal populations who in a sense feel that the resource industries may move on but they are the ones who do not wish to move on. So they're looking around and they're finding that their real partners are aboriginal. For example, in Sioux Lookout after a long negotiation complicated by federal provincial administrative problems, the aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities in Sioux Lookout decided they needed a new hospital and decided that they will build a single hospital and share it, and administer it, together. Well that was difficult because one was federal and the other was provincial et cetera, et cetera, but the people who are staying said 'well look, what we'd really like is a bigger hospital and more doctors and more skills and services. And they decided to do it together. These are very interesting things, they're little bits, but when you travel around the country what you start to see is enough bits and pieces to form what could be a pattern.

IL: That's encouraging for sure.

JRS: I mean I don't want to be romantic. I don't want to overstate it. There are of course real problems, but compared to twenty years ago, or forty years ago, it's very interesting.

IL: Now you also talked a bit about shaping society and one of the key phrases that kept popping up for me was your discussion about the levers of power. You seemed to suggest that if people are interested in changing things, in shaping society, then they need to join mainstream politics and gain access to those levers. My question is, supposing that I'm a person who wants to change things and believes that where mainstream politics are concerned the levers of power are concentrated in too few hands, don't you think it might make more sense to move those levers closer to the people who are most affected by their use?

JRS: Well you know there are various levers at various levels, and I think a lot of what's happening at the moment is that people are trying to figure out where they can develop real levers. But no matter what level they're at, they still have to be in mainstream politics. As I said that night, I'm not against NGO's. I'm not against people working in a parallel way. I've done it myself, and I think it's good, and I think people should continue to do that. We're actually capable of doing two or three things at the same time. We don't have to do one thing or the other and my point really is that people have to start in addition moving into mainstream politics at whatever level interests them. My opinion on where you should go into politics is irrelevant. The only thing I'm saying is you should go into politics.

If you want my honest opinion I think school council, school trusteeships, are among the most important political bodies in the country. If you can't get the school boards right, then you're probably not going to get anything else right. And if you can't get voter turnout up for the school boards then I don't see what else is going to work. I don't really believe that politics is about big choices, a lot of it's about an accumulation of small choices. Again it's a form of egalitarianism, you see what I mean? And people have to get used to the sense that they themselves personally can do things to change things by being in the know, by getting involved, and by working with people. And if you do that in the small areas, which are important, you'll suddenly find you are able to do it in more abstract areas, larger areas. But if you always say "oh this is a big question, it's national, it's international." You never really get close to reality.

It's like the funny old joke about women: Some would say in our family the men have all the power, the men decide whether or not we'll have nuclear weapons, they decide whether or not we'll recognize China, they decide whether or not they're in favour of an expansion of the European Community. And the women have no power at all, they simply run the family budget, the house, education, health care. In other words, the real power, and the men are talking in abstractions. Well it's the same thing in politics. I think it's really important that people have that sense that they have their hands on things. But you can't on the other hand believe that power only lies at the local level. There is real power at the local level, but handling those real levers gives you the ability to imagine things at the successively higher levels.

IL: Yes but it seems that often the folks who are manning the levers at the local level are superceded by those interests influencing those levers higher up.

JRS: Yes, but what I think we have to do is to keep imagining how we would do things at the local level. If you live on an island, or a series of islands, and you have some natural resources and some people say, ah well, that's now part of the global economy. Well, there are several ways of dealing with that. One of the ways you deal with that is you say what can we do locally? Do we need sawmills? Do we need local control? Do you want to think about how we are going to exploit what we have? And you suddenly realize that by taking this really positive, practical, local approach you give yourself power over local produce. After all local produce can't be used if you don't allow it to be used. That's the first level of power. But then that allows one to look at the other levels and ask what should our attitudes be at the provincial and national levels? Are we in favour of an approach to commodities which is an old fashioned mass market approach, or would we like to be talking about a more hands on, modern, sophisticated approach to commodities if that's what we're doing locally. What's happened in the last couple of decades is people have said all the power has gone international so we citizens are going to go local. And the difficulty with that is if you only go local then you're really giving up any power over the bigger picture. Then you'll end up always on the defensive. It isn't true that all the power has gone international but what one has to do is make the local work and then make the other levels work. If you make the local work then you can make the other levels work.

IL: Well you're touching a little bit on the answer I think, or at least part of the answer, to my next question which involved a declaration that you made but didn't really elaborate much on and really intrigued me. You mentioned that you thought globalization is dead, and I was wondering if you might care to elaborate a bit on that.

JRS: Well what I said was that what we understood to be globalization over the last couple of decades, which is to say a series of international forces which were unstoppable, which were inevitable, which were natural economic forces. And the transnational corporations being the new source of power, leadership from the private sector, the slow withering away of the nation-state, a decrease in the power of citizens from the local up to the national level, that sort of thing. Those have been the truisms of the last couple of decades and I think that theory of internationalism which calls itself globalization is dead because nobody really believes it anymore. They don't believe it's true. Don't believe that there are natural economic forces. They don't believe the private sector leaders have a destiny which is to lead people - their job is to lead corporations. And one of the interesting outcomes of September 11th is that we suddenly saw the return of government to the front of the debate. You might not like, you might even dislike what they say, but the fact is that everywhere you turn what you're dealing with are governments and suddenly the leadership of the transnational corporations that was supposed to be inevitable has just melted away and gone back to running corporations which for shareholders is a good thing.

IL: And yet there are organizations with a long history and new ones springing up which seem to support the idea that globalization is still kicking, like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank that have been around for decades, and now you have the Global Agreement on Trade in Services.

JRS: You do indeed, but you have a much more active role being played by governments. You have a very different kind of debate taking place on questions such as education, health, and medication for example. There's a big danger in thinking everything always goes in great waves, there are always three or four things happening at once and a change in direction is not always a change in direction. It's usually a change in the weighting of things. So that suddenly something that was once preponderant is less preponderant and other things are rising. You get contradictory things happening at once. I don't think I mentioned it that night, but it was thought until five years ago that the patent power of transnational corporations in the pharmaceutical area to decide what would happen was absolute. And suddenly what you found in South America, Brazil, France and increasingly other places was that if pressure was applied they would simply cave and go along with local desire to have cheaper drugs.

IL: You definitely peppered your talk that night with some interesting statements. Another one was when you said , "If you don't believe you can shape your society there is no society." I'd like to hear a little more, I'm not sure what that means exactly.

JRS: Well, I think it goes back to a very basic idea. It wasn't mine, but I'm one of the people that is reiterating it. That individualism is not what Hollywood led you to believe, it's not about heroics, it's not about saving other people, and it's not about walking away from society and indulging yourself. We are born into society and if we want to accentuate our individualism we do it by accentuating our role in society. In other words by the degree to which we act as what I call a responsible individual. It's that commitment which makes us an individual. If you do that you obviously believe you can shape your society. If you don't believe you can shape your society then you basically walk away and go surfing. You live an alternate to life in society, but you walk away. When I say if you don't believe you can shape your society there is no society, what I'm saying is if you don't believe you can shape your society you are in essence checking out. You're walking away, you're giving in to self-interest, or you're simply walking away in despair, boredom, whatever. And if you do that there is no society. Certainly if one person does it that's fine. I think it's essential that somewhere between maybe one and five percent does go and sit in the desert. It's just one of the characteristics, the counterweights, of society. But more than that one or five percent, or whatever that critical number is, and it starts to undermine society.

IL: My last question involves the evolving relationship between ab-originals and non-aboriginal society in Canada. One of the things I really enjoyed about the Supreme Courts discourse on the subject in Delgamuukw was the idea that we're all here to stay. That you and I as settlers, or myself as an example, that I can't really go back to Ireland where my ancestors are from simply because they wouldn't have me. So as we see this relationship de-veloping, how do you envision aboriginals assuming a more main-stream role in Canadian society? And how do you see that relationship reconciling itself over the next 10, 20, 50 years?

JRS: First of all it's very hard to guess what it will look like. And secondly, it's going to happen in a myriad of ways. I think one of the really interesting things is that if you just look at Canada as a tension between people and place, again it's that equality thing, if you just think of Canada as people then basically all you really have to think about is seven cities. Everything else is irrelevant right? But if you actually think of Canada as place where there has to be a permanent tension between people and place then you can look at it differently. You look at Saskatchewan and Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, which after all is enormous, and you realize that we're moving quite quickly to a time when about fifty percent of the population is going to be aboriginal. And it will be the workforce to a great extent. And if you look at a map of Canada you kind of draw a line across it about one third of the way up from the border, which is leaves about 60 percent of most of the big provinces from BC to Labrador right up to the Arctic. All of that already is or soon will be majority aboriginal or Metis. So you're actually talking in the very near future about a country in which sixty, seventy percent of the land mass will be majority aboriginal. So that's a reality. Those are the people who are going to be living there. We're very fortunate that they and the settlers who've decided to stay have agreed to take responsibility for that territory. It's not somebody living downtown in Toronto or Vancouver who's going to take responsibility for it, it's somebody living there. We're very fortunate that there are people who are willing to be responsible for the Nass Valley or Nunavut. We're very lucky, see what I mean? So I think that fact, that reality of the presence, will gradually work itself out into a form of day-to-day power and government in Canada.

IL: Or you might see further oppression and conflict as the cities demand more resources.

JRS: I doubt it. I don't think so. I don't think that's going to happen because the second factor is in a whole series of the cities - Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg. And a whole bunch of the smaller cities - Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and so on where you have very important aboriginal populations. In Winnipeg you have about 70,000. I don't know the numbers but I don't think it would be far off in Saskatoon and Regina. About fifty percent of the aboriginal population is now urban, so that it isn't sufficient to say that it's the people on the land versus the people in the cities because I think what we're now facing is a very interesting opportunity where we could go on thinking of our cities like European cities, which would be a mistake in my view. Instead, we have to find a way to have what I would call a real working relationship rather than an imaginary relationship between the people and the place. The people and the land. And in a sense this important presence of the aboriginals in the cities gives us a tool because many of them of course maintain relationships with the places they come from. And I can already see it happening in Winnipeg, where they're thinking how does one live in the city? There are people who say if you leave the reserve you integrate, you're assimilated. But that isn't actually going to happen thank goodness. Instead we're going to have different kinds of cities, and it's a great opportunity.