An extended interview with John Ralston Saul

Kate Szatmari

I realize that you were recently in Winnipeg for the receiving of an honorary doctorate from the U of W, and that is was the university that it was your father attended. How did the convocation go?

The convocation was fantastic: there was a dinner the night before, which I spoke at, and the convocation, that I also spoke at. I always love seeing the students. It’s great. And tough these days. Winnipeg’s in better shape than some cities. But it’s still a time of uncertainty for students, particularly if they have student loan debts. It doesn’t make anything any easier, to put it mildly. 

But I talked about half the time about their situation and what I thought about how to take that, and the other half about the aboriginal situation and what I felt the role of this generation is in that. They seemed to appreciate, as they kindly gave me a standing ovation. I think it’s the first time I’ve had that at an honorary degree ceremony. 

I think that the University of Winnipeg made some big decisions, which were the right decision, to take a leadership role as a downtown university. It’s got a lot of fantastic, young indigenous professors and programs. It’s getting its percentage of students up pretty nicely; it’s not high enough yet, but it’s getting there. In many ways, it’s one of the centres of the debate of figuring out what to do.

To turn things towards The Comeback: this is the second book that you’ve focused predominantly on indigenous issues.

A Fair Country was three parts. The first part, which was the most important part, was saying that we have to rethink our mythology of who we are because we’re stuck in a colonial myth. We really had to wipe out this late-19th century colonial imposition of us as a pretty little British and French place and realize how much of what we were came from the indigenous people and two-and-a-half centuries of working with indigenous people. I think that was a very clear focus: rethinking how we think about ourselves.

Mythologies really matter. They’re not made up. And if they’re not true, they get more and more problematic. I think one of the big problems for Canada is that we’ve been stuck with a very untrue myth about ourselves, and it’s getting more and more in the way of linking together where we’ve come from with - for example - being a country of immigration. It fits together perfectly once you understand the indigenous role at the core of immigration and ideas of citizenship. Once you understand that, you understand why we’re quite good at the immigration and citizenship sort of stuff.

This book is entirely devoted to indigenous issues. It really came out of that winter of Idle No More. I sat there and thought, “I’m not going to say a word because there are lots of young aboriginal voices being raised, and they’re being heard publicly for the first time.” They were there, but the public hadn’t noticed them. The public was listening to them for the first time and the last thing was needed for me to muddy the waters. It was better for people just to hear the aboriginal voice. This was a moment to hear what they had to say. I think the country heard it and it was very important and moving. 

But then afterwards I thought I did have something to add, which was to make this argument - this pamphlet, if you like - which The Comeback is. It’s really addressed to non-aboriginals, saying, “Look, this the most important issue in Canada today. This is the unresolved question.” And that you can’t run a country when you such a major unresolved question. It’s, in a way, like the 1960s and ‘70s with the francophone question. Which was dealt with. It cost money and time, and now suddenly half the bilingual people in Canada are anglophones and the French language is revived across the country. We’ve really changed the country and the conversation.

But this even more fundamental issue - which is the role and place of aboriginal peoples - has not been addressed. I think some of us were more optimistic about the structures of the society changing and gradually realized that they haven’t changed. So I thought it was important to say something really strong and clear.

Something that struck me when I read The Comeback - in comparison to some of your older works like Voltaire’s Bastards or On Equilibrium - was that it more resembled a pamphlet, like you mentioned. It was very snappy. Some chapters were no longer than a few pages. It seemed to have a very catchy flow to it, like you sat down and churned it out in a few weeks or months. Is that a realistic depiction of what actually happened?

It’s a realistic depiction of what it feels like. It actually went through 28 drafts. I’ve never done as many drafts of a book. The hardest thing to do as a writer is to make things look simple. I just couldn’t believe that for something of that length I’d done 28 drafts. Already, I’m preparing the French version, and will have to do another five drafts for that. It’s such an important and complex issue: it is very difficult to make it clear but be accurate and balanced. It’s taken an enormous amount of work to come up with that sense that this was just thrown off.

I noticed that you mentioned in the acknowledgments that you wrote at least some of the book - if not all of it - on an off-the-grid island. What was that about? 

We have a little island on Georgian Bay. It’s not that far north, but it’s the wildest place that isn’t far north. It’s been protected and there are no roads. We live on solar and an outhouse and one solar-powered tap of cold water. You wake up in the morning, and no matter the temperature of the water you throw yourself in. 

That’s where the writing happened: I also wrote The Unconscious Civilization there. It’s interesting. The Unconscious Civilization is oral and quite fast, and The Doubter’s Companion also. Others are very considered and analytic. I think you have to use a different method depending on what you want to say. 

This is a book someone could read in a day. And I want them to do that, because I want them to be able to digest the argument completely. Some of it’s fun, because when it’s a very serious issue humour is important. God knows aboriginal people are the best at that. It’s an important part of selling that. That wicked side of it is very important.

You make the case very clear throughout the course of the book that it’s certainly the ethical thing for a government to do to transfer an enormous amount of land, power and wealth to indigenous peoples. However, it might not immediately appeal to voters who are oftentimes fixated on things like debt and GDP. How do you think we can create enough political will among the populace - who are still oftentimes misinformed about history - to support such change?

The obsession with what I would call the cornerstone view of how to run a government - which is the terror of debt, the terror of taxes, the terror of programs, the obsession with little cuts here and there all the time - is only about 40 years old. That came in with the neo-conservative movement: the promoting of efficiency up to the top. 

It’s in total denial of how we built what works in the country. If we’d followed that policy in the 19th century and early 20th century, Winnipeg wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have public education; we got that when we couldn’t afford it. We got the railroad when we couldn’t afford it. The immigration pattern - giving everybody in the east 200 acres per man but in the west a quarter-section or whatever plus the wood and horses and cows - couldn’t be justified on a basis of efficiency, or the basis of available money. The west would not have been developed in the way it was had we believed in what we supposedly believe in today. We wouldn’t have any of this stuff.

It’s a nonsense argument, and has never worked. It’s a kind of argument that’s a claw-down, but what you’re clawing down is yourself. We just have to remind people of how the country was built and remind them that when we addressed the francophone issue, we spent the money, we put the programs in place. The result was that it worked. 

Now, we have to turn around and those of us who have influence as voters or can speak up have to say, “look, the way you deal with what they see as the aboriginal problem is you see it as justice, rights and frankly as what is necessarily to build the country.” It’s going to cost money and power, it’s going to require a hell of a lot more spending on education - which they’ve been underspending on and can only be described as racism - and there’s a whole pile of work to be done supporting the building of aboriginal languages. 

I think people are ready for it in Canada. Aboriginals are saying it, but what we need is non-aboriginals standing up and saying “this has to be done, this has to be done really fast and we will all benefit from it.” 

Published in Volume 69, Number 9 of The Uniter (October 29, 2014)

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