John Ralston Saul was 27, he says, when his eyes were opened to the issues confronting the Indigenous peoples of this land.
“I was typical of my generation,” he said in an interview in advance of the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival which he will open on April 26. “I had been taught nothing (about them) at school.”
He was a newly minted PhD when he went to work for Maurice Strong when he was setting up Petro-Canada for Justin Trudeau’s dad Pierre.
“I was the second employee of Petro-Canada. I arrived on Jan. 1 (1976) and Petro-Canada then consisted of one hotel room on the 22nd floor of the International Hotel with Maurice Strong in it. I checked in and doubled the size of the staff.”
Strong had had a long relationship with Indigenous peoples, but Saul started from zero and realized how ignorant he was.
“Really for me the turning point was, I think, in early May 1976 when I went with him to the High Arctic. We were travelling to the Arctic Islands where there was gas exploration and we stopped in Inuvik at mouth of Mackenzie River. Strong had organized a meeting with the hunters and trappers association of the Dene, Inuvialuit and the Gwich’in.
“There I was, this smart kid who had never made a mistake in his life … completely ignorant in other words … and we went into this room with these guys who didn’t have a PhD like me and fortunately I said nothing. I realized I didn’t know what anyone was talking about because I had never been taught any of this.
“I didn’t know what that form of thinking was. It was quite different from the European style of thinking.
“That is what started me down the track, when I look back on it.”
This Thursday, the well-known author, intellectual, philosopher and partner to former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, will offer his thoughts on this big subject with a talk titled 12 Ways to Honesty In Canada.
He has written several books that expand his sense of Indigenous societies in Canada and the need for an understanding.
“My books go in a row. They are built one on the other. I couldn’t have written A Fair Country if I hadn’t written Reflection of a Siamese Twin and so on. I have never written a ‘book’. It’s always a continuation of an argument either about Canada or the world. Even my novels are built that way.”
There is a seed at the heart of this continuum.
“I have always said, in terms of western philosophers, I’m very influenced by Vico and Socrates. I have just come from Alberta where we did a Six Degrees event that featured Leroy Little Bear. He and Richard Atleo are two of my favourite Indigenous philosophers.
“All of these people are talking about a circular approach (to thinking about society) not a linear approach. I don”t know how I got there but that (circular approach) lies at the heart of everything I have ever written.
“It is the concept of the wholeness of things versus the (European) linear railway track that leaves the past behind. The linear path is very strong and clear, but its weaknesses are obvious. If we are honest with ourselves we can see that racism lies in there and the excluding of minorities lies in there.
“In the end this gradual structuring of things in straight lines is a out of fear of the circular, holistic approach. I am not being romantic about it. You can see the way people respond when they stand up and talk in the (Six Degrees) circle and they are looking at the rest of the audience.”
If you think about it, and Saul definitely does, the circle is central to Indigenous culture. And he believes that non-Indigenous Canadians need to enter the circle and listen.
“If you were to ask who were the greatest speakers on the Prairies in the 19th century, they were Louis Riel and Big Bear. There were no Anglos or Francos who could rise to the intellectual, political or inspirational or even philosophical level of Riel and Big Bear. They were remarkable.”
Saul is scathing of the people the country of Canada sent west to the Red River area of Manitoba.
“Riel was up against these crummy little people sent from Ottawa, who were really third rate at best. All they had was power. They didn’t have anything else going for them. Whatever his personal problems, Riel was a brilliant man and a brilliant speaker and writer. Big Bear was probably the greatest orator on the Prairies.”
Today, he says, we are seeing a massive re-emergence of that kind of Indigenous intellectual leadership, something he described in his book The Comeback.
“The painters were noticed first. That was a way in for a lot of non-Indigenous people. After that came theatre with people such as Tomson Highway who wrote two masterpieces. Now we have this tsunami of Indigenous writers, intellectuals and artists. It is really something.”
It is time to listen, he says, and much more than that.
“Truth and reconciliation is meaningless unless there is restitution. And the citizens who are not Indigenous have to be very clear in their minds that this is the single most important issue in Canada. It remains the single most important issue. It’s much more important than a pipeline.
“So that means that non-Indigenous people have a responsibility, not to tell anyone what to do, not even to give advice, but to listen and to say we are willing to pay the taxes because we want to see the programs. We want to see money spent on the languages and the schools; on the water and all the rest of it.
“I think it is moving, I think it is changing but the civil service has to move faster. There has to be a change in the philosophy which for 150 years was how you handled these issues.”
He believes that Canada and Indigenous peoples can have their cake and eat it too.
“Yes it will cost some money, so what’s the matter with that. Why should a very important group of citizens be treated less well than others.”
He believes Indigenous peoples are far more sophisticated and broad-minded about how they think about these issues.
“They aren’t so frightened. Really the narrow European ideas of ownership and the ridiculous stuff coming out of common law and the criminal code have been a big problem for us.”
As time goes by, he says he understands the extent to which this Eurocentric view of the world has taken us off course.
“We have to rethink the way we talk about how we function. It’s a big project but it’s doable.
“We have had moments when we have risen above narrow thinking, but there are large stretches of Canadian history which are reduced to the most basic European style black and white power relationships. We know that digging into trenches this way has never worked for us. There is a great lesson there.”
Saul says he rarely talks about politics, but …
“Historically Canada has been, at its best, a very intellectually led place. People are surprised when I say this.
“Look at most of the great prime ministers, like them or not, they were great thinkers. If anything the weakness of Sir John A. Macdonald was that he wasn’t a great thinker.
“Lately we have gone through a long period where thinking out loud in public has not really been admired in Canadian politics.
“People have to get back into that idea of the content of public debate. I watched and listened when we were in Ottawa for six years and I note the fact that I didn’t hear any really interesting questions or debates from any side.
“It was all about positioning and arguments about efficiency but there was no real sense of the direction of the country, the purpose and the way that people fit together. Even if good things were being done then, it was not being debated. There wasn’t an admiration for debate.
“I don’t think a country as complicated as Canada can function if it doesn’t really talk out loud about big things.”
He says he is thrilled to be in Ottawa and revisit his time here in Rideau Hall. He has no book to sell although he is working on one.
“It’s a return to the international. It’s as if I went back to the beginning and started over again. It is an attempt to understand what is happening today, without being on the surface.”
Saul was writing about the return of populism in the 1990s. He wants to understand the phenomenon that has produced leaders such as Donald Trump so he is returning to the topic.
“You have to say to yourself this (populism) is not a cause, it’s a result and you need to understand how this is happening and why this is coming back.
“You could see it two decades ago and it’s the result of the unwillingness of the mainstream voice to deal with it then. If people had started talking then we wouldn’t be where we are today. You can’t live in denial about these things because they are a sign of something else.”
John Ralston Saul will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 26 at Christ Church Cathedral at 6:30 p.m. Tickets and information: writersfest.org