A Fair Country

By John Ralston Saul

In the last year we’ve had two books purporting to tell us the “truth” about our home and native land. The first, The Truth About Canada by Mel Hurtig, took a strictly statistical approach. In A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada John Ralston Saul comes at the truth from the opposite direction, exploring our core national mythologies.

The first of Saul’s truths about Canada is that we are an Aboriginal civilization, a nation of métis. We may not be aware of this, such a truth may be unconscious, but nevertheless “it is there, deep within us, powerful whether we know it or not.” The mythology he outlines has Canadian society resting on a triangular foundation composed of British, French, and Aboriginal pillars. Of these the Aboriginal is the senior and most important pillar, consisting of a set of shared values that have shaped who we are. These values include balance, co-operation, inclusiveness, and diversity. Our Aboriginal roots are what have made our culture more oral than written, more circular (inclusive) than linear (progressive), and more accepting of complexity than the Manichean monolithic state identified with the European-U.S. political tradition.

This initial exercise in myth building is the least convincing part of the book, relying on an admittedly romantic interpretation of Aboriginal culture that sees it as the source of all things good in this country (all things bad are, in turn, the result of malign foreign influences). Everything is viewed, and distorted, through this weird prism. Even the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of R. v. Oakes, which sets out the rather commonsensical test for when Charter rights may be limited, is turned into an Aboriginal text that “might have been written” by Big Bear. That’s more than a stretch. Worst of all, however, especially for someone as concerned with maintaining standards when it comes to using words with care and precision, is the flabbiness of the language. The Canadian model of society, for example, is “all about working out how to create relationships that are mixed in various ways and designed to create balances. It is the idea of a complex society functioning like an equally complex family within an ever-enlarging circle.” Which can pretty much mean whatever you want it to mean.

Language is also front and center in the book’s second part, which involves much worrying over the replacement of the word “welfare” with “order” in the “peace, order and good government” line found at the beginning of the Constitution Act, 1867. This is an interesting point, involving a discussion of competing notions of the common good throughout our history, but perhaps not worth the time Saul spends on it given the debatable difference it has made.

It is in the third section, “The Castrati,” that Saul really hits his stride, lambasting our political and managerial elites and – as the title suggests – recommending that they grow a pair. Though the identity of the “elite” remains a bit fuzzy, their condition is carefully diagnosed as colonial inferiority complex: “a marriage of self-loathing, humiliation and adoration [of foreign empires].” Such a depressive self-image sees us selling off our most valuable corporate assets to become mere colonial employees, Leonard Tilley’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” It denies any specific Canadian reality and identity, one born of a distinct history and place.

Most of A Fair Country – things like its idolization of Baldwin and LaFontaine and the Métis – will be familiar to readers of Saul’s previous book on Canada, Reflections of a Siamese Twin. And his intellectual preoccupations – oral vs. written cultures, the cult of management, true and false mythologies – remain the same. Also the same, unfortunately, is his tendency to coast along on waves of glib generalities. “We talk often and vaguely about our values, often slipping into romantic banality.” Indeed he does. His arguments are strongest when he gets away from big-picture myth building and trying to follow too closely in the footsteps of his intellectual hero Harold Innis, and talks instead about specific issues. Neither the truth of statistics or of myth is ever complete in itself.

Review first published December 27, 2008.

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