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College Quarterly
Summer 2010 - Volume 13 Number 3
A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada
John Ralston Saul
Toronto: Penguin, 2009
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

What do Arthur Miller and John Ralston Saul have in common? Perhaps many things, but two which stand out are the facts that: first, their wives were and arguably are more famous than they were and are; and, second, they were both presidents of PEN International.

Miller, of course, was once married to Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) and, according to FBI files, he was mainly responsible for having her pegged as a “communist sympathizer” in the 1950s (an accusation that may have led indirectly to her death). Saul arrived on the scene somewhat later. He married and remains married to Adrienne Clarkson, a popular Canadian broadcaster and Canada’s 26th post-confederation Governor-General.

More important for our purposes, however, John Ralston Saul and Arthur Miller share the honour of being the only North Americans to be elected to the presidency of PEN International, the prestigious and politically progressive association that is now completing its ninetieth year of operation as a voice for writers around the world.

PEN was originally a gathering of “poets, essayists and novelists,” hence its name. It has expanded its reach to bring together dramatists such as Miller and putative philosophers like Saul. It is a noble organization that works in support of unquestionably gallant causes. What could be more important than promoting artistic excellence and freedom of speech? John Ralston Saul’s involvement in PEN tells us much about the kind of man that he must be. I therefore do not say “putative philosopher” because I wish to discredit him in any way. I use the phrase simply because I am uncertain about how or even whether to try to classify him and his work.

Let me state the most obvious facts about him. Armed with a Ph.D. from McGill University, awarded for his study of French President Charles de Gaulle and the “modernization” of France, he became an assistant to the extraordinary Canadian entrepreneur-bureaucrat Maurice Strong, and helped establish Canada’s since-diseased public experiment in petroleum production and distribution, Petro-Canada. He travelled extensively in South-east Asia and Africa and became a successful novelist, mainly in the 1980s, who was deeply influenced by what he saw and did during his overseas adventures. Since 1992, he has been writing popular philosophical and historical works. Beginning with the celebrated Voltaire’s Bastards and moving forward to this year’s celebration of the men he suggests are Canada’s real founders, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, he has contributed a book to our national discourse about every two years.

Sometimes fame fires back. Saul’s eclecticism and vicarious celebrity may not have had the optimal results for any man interested in displaying the utmost gravitas before his country’s intellectual and academic elite. Canadian academics are sometimes surly when faced with a writer who can speak to ordinary people in lucid, intelligent terms. His comments on various Canadian elites in the section of A Fair Country that concerns “the castrati” make it clear, however, that he might not be exceptionally bothered by any such rejection. After all, A Fair Country was named a Globe & Mail “best book,” and it has climbed to first place in the best-seller lists. Earlier works have won Saul a trove of international awards and his book, The Unconscious Civilization won the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-fiction in 1996 (Ms. Clarkson did not hold the office at that time). If the snootier of the literati-cum-castrati give him nothing else, he can at least say that he has not been ignored.

John Ralston Saul, in short, spins in exalted circles and is widely read by the masses. Add to this the fact that he has strong academic credentials, years of experience consorting with “third world” guerrilla armies (necessary research for three of his novels) and abundant exposure to Canadian movers, shakers and mandarin makers, and all the necessary elements of envy and approbation appear in abundance.

When he speaks, various people listen, but what does he say?

To begin, John Ralston Saul is a witty and only occasionally irascible contrarian. He is like a gadfly with a muzzle more than a flesh-rending bite. I recall, for example, his delightful critique of the use of the concept, “stakeholders.” In a public lecture at the University of Toronto, he gently rebuked those who cynically use “stakeholders” as a term to disguise a novel form of corporate conceit. Just as employers encourage employees to “take ownership” of their employment as a euphemism for the removal of meaningful job security, or speak glowingly of “empowerment” as cover for collusion, so “stakeholders” is cleverly used to exclude anyone without a demonstrable material interest in a decision from discussing it. I was charmed by his concern for the meaning of words, and I was certainly in full agreement with his demystification of managerial rhetoric.

John Ralston Saul, however, is not primarily concerned with semantics. Amid all the talk (and much of the evidence) of the triumph of “globalization,” he has been one of the few to look at the phenomenon with scepticism. In The Collapse of Globalism and the Reinvention of the World (2005), he addresses the renewal of nationalism and of anti-authoritarian populism in its various guises. He gave the “anti-globalization movement”, after a decade-long hiatus, a reason to rebuild. He delivered a blow to the zombie-culture of the “war on terror.” And he encouraged those who have sought to disengage from international control mechanisms and the local despots who collaborate with them. Though sometimes possessed of ideological commitments unfriendly to corporate capitalism and occasionally packed with ethnic and religious hatreds, the resistance to overarching international influences from military interventions to the fiscal constraints imposed by organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is now growing again.

Who knows where the yeasty rebelliousness of people tired of tyranny will erupt? If nothing else, the most recent attempt to impose a “new world order” under the administration of US President George W. Bush is being thwarted here and there. One day, repressive leaders and systems may be rejected. If nothing else, the path of global corporate hegemony is not proving to be smooth, and Saul has explained some of the reasons why.

In A Fair Country, John Ralston Saul turns to his native land and seeks to expose its unexamined myths and legends. He takes a calculated swipe at the elites who remain colonial, though the country has been nominally independent for somewhere between 143, 79 or 28 years (depending on whether the BNA Act, the Statute of Westminster or the patriation of the Constitution is taken as the moment of liberation from the United Kingdom. He details some of the successes and failures of wit and of will that have left Canada “fair” in both senses: generally respectful of the rule of law and occasionally robust in its pursuit of equity, though a good deal less than excellent in its pursuit (or even defining) of its higher goals. I imagine Saul giving the country a kind of elementary school report card commenting: “plays well with others” and “needs to try harder,” while awarding an overall grade = “C+”; nice enough, but an underachiever.

Three themes dominate A Fair Country. The first is the influence of aboriginal peoples; the second is a deep-seated concern for mutual aid; and the third is his intolerance of incompetence, an accusation aimed directed mainly at what passes for Canada’s ruling class and its enablers.

Part I concerns what Saul means when he calls Canada a Métis Nation. He is not thinking of the descendants of Louis Riel, or at least not entirely. Instead, he calls upon all Canadians (including the 20% of the current population which was born elsewhere and the equal or larger number of second and third generation immigrants) to understand the profundity of Canada’s Native heritage, not simply as a tile or a artfully constructed pattern in the Canadian mosaic, but as the foundation and a continuing integral part of the Canadian experience. This, he is quick to point out, does not mean “the normalizing of the Aboriginal reality,” but how what he calls the “strategic elements” of our self-image are linked to Aboriginal traditions. These links are sometimes unknown to non-Native peoples, but he believes them to be intimately entwined with our attitudes, institutions and “stories.” He cites Canada’s (former) commitment to United Nations’ peacekeeping, our preference for consensus in decision making, and our “obsession with egalitarianism” as indissoluble connections to the First Nations. Critics may chide him for romanticizing the past and glossing the present. After all, at least 40% of Canadians seem willing to accept international aggression, divisive politics and the ethical, economic and ecological problems precipitated by the premises of neoliberalism. Nonetheless, there is something to what Saul says, even if it is a little less than meets the eye.

Part II focuses on the egalitarian presumption mentioned above. The three-term slogans that summarize the French Revolution (liberté, egalité, fraternité) and the American Revolution (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) have often been held up in stark contrast to pre-Charter Canada. Saul seems in sympathy with a compelling argument that was presented in Gad Horowitz’s iconic article, “Liberalism, Conservatism and Socialism in Canada,” first published in The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, 32(2), 1966, and reprinted as Chapter 1 of his Canadian Labour in Politics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972). Horowitz, held that the principal determinants of non-Native Canadian political culture came from the pre-revolutionary French who had settled Québec a century before the unpleasantness at the Bastille and had imported a kind of loose feudalism which was adapted to the conditions of the Canadian bush, and from the anti-revolutionary United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States to occupy parts of the Maritime provinces, the Eastern townships of Québec and Ontario. These people shared, he suggested, fundamentally conservative, as distinguished from right-wing liberal, beliefs.

The result was that Canadian life was indelibly coloured with a touch of Tory blue. As a result, our politics were ideologically heterogeneous. Our liberalism was gentle and not preoccupied with possessive individualism, our socialism was low-key, humane and incremental, and our conservatism (including the once-popular “red tories”) was not about the preservation of wealth and privilege, but sincerely concerned with the common weal.

Moreover, a strong sense of personal responsibility and a pride in self-reliance and competence was not incompatible with the values of “fairness, inclusivity and effectiveness”; instead they were prerequisites in a demanding wilderness. Saul adds something of importance to this familiar theme.

The three-term slogan that has defined the legend of Canada since confederation, he says, is “peace, order and good government.” It has an innate appeal to elites and authorities, while keeping in mind the well-being of the community. Saul, however, argues that the insertion of the word “order” came late, and that the original and enduring phrase had been “peace, welfare and good government,” a rather different motto with a rather different meaning. Saul connects this to aboriginal roots, as well, but the implications are considerably broader and deeper. An ideological wedge is being driven among Canadians. Contemporary neoliberals (or neoconservatives, as Americans call them) are pushing the view that “traditional family values,” a poor brand of Protestantism and unbridled “free enterprise” constitute the Canadian heritage, and that this heritage is threatened by “big government,” “the nanny state,” external enemies, the coddling of domestic criminals and unaffordable “entitlements” for the poor. From Saul’s point of view, this ideological wedge is not merely morally reprehensible, but is an egregious distortion of history. For me it echoes Max Weber’s description of the iron cage, except that it is now only the Americans who get to play at capital accumulation as sport, whereas Canadians sit on the side, like so many Don Cherries, wishing we could be rough and tough enough to get into the game.

Part III moves from political theory to political practice. John Ralston Saul does not come to his caustic remarks about the Canadian ruling elite with any sense of proletarian outrage. He knows well the people of whom he speaks, and his words express more disappointment than resentment or rage. Saul is content with the hierarchical division of social roles and obligations. He cedes to leadership the responsibilities of guidance and control. His complaint is that Canadian leaders lack vision, courage, self-confidence and a good sense of who they are and what they should be doing. Reading him, I was reminded of a poignant imperial moment in the film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which Peter O’Toole describes the jealous, divisive, insular Arabs as a “silly people,” a phrase not likely to endear him to Omar Sharif, who was a leader of one of the constituent tribes, but an apt description of some of the nastier aspects of colonialism.

Perhaps Saul is simply trying to goad Canadian captains of industry, insurance, governance and good thinking into something more ennobling that they have produced in the past. Perhaps he is just giving the laggardly team a dose of some needed but unpleasant-tasting medicine; but, maybe not. He is sometimes severe and a touch unforgiving. A portion of his portrayal of the plutocracy and its political and ideological enablers is worth quoting at length:

Although entrusted with the mechanisms of power, those in charge [are] paralyzed by the reality of their responsibility [and] peevishly concentrate on short-term details. If they reveal any hint of grander themes, these usually involve trying to drag the country off in directions the citizenry have never expressed much interest in. These are usually focused on a narrow and again short-term idea of efficiency, order and whatever the latest imported fashion might be.

Clearly, something is amiss.

Saul is, of course, aware that his penchant for egalitarianism might seem at odds with his claim that Canada suffers from a failure of leadership. Who is at fault? The generals or the soldiers in the field? He explains the apparent contradiction by saying that elites are a functional necessity for any society. Leaders arise in all domains of human endeavour—business, government, education, science and the arts—and the measure of a society is partly the way in which its elites carry out their jobs, including that of inspiring the multitude to take up their tasks with resolve and energy.

As for Canada’s leaders, Saul is happy to announce that the Canadian elite structure is “of the relatively innocuous, penetrable sort.” He insists that it is comparatively easy to rise up into the top ranks and almost as easy to fall down from them. This is an empirical assertion that I would seriously question; nonetheless, the important point is that Saul has some firm opinions about what elites should do and he does not think that Canadians do them well. Canada’s top people should, he says, be able to identify the direction in which society should move and help society to think that way about itself. They must be eager to “build and to own [and] want to own things in order to shape events.” Understandably, he brings Pericles in to support his claims, but he also enlists (without obvious permission) the words of the legendary labour leader Moses Coady—an odd fit, to say the least. Canada has a “failed elite” which, in Saul’s opinion, “is afraid of ideas … would rather sell than buy, rather trade in wealth than create it. They would rather be employees than owners, managers rather than risk takers.” And so on.

In the end, Saul relies on the idea of “ideas.” He wants to encourage people to reject “ideology,” the last refuge of the fearful, and embrace great, visionary, transformative ideas into great actions worthy of a great people (or at least worthy of being followed by somewhat great people). I have heard this sort of thing before from generous and honourable people—from John Maynard Keynes who famously told us that the world is governed by little else than ideas and by Barbara Ward who sought to demonstrate that the only thing needed to make poor nations into rich (or at least relatively prosperous) ones, was for obsolete ideas to be exchanged for new, modern ones. I have also heard it from George H. W. Bush, who called it “the vision thing” (and admitted he could never quite get it, thus presumably explaining his one-term presidency). It is a view that has been with us since Plato. It is one that inevitably privileges elites whose power and status rarely have much to do with the alleged superiority of their ideas.

So it is that John Ralston Saul has created a provocative critique of Canadian society. He has brought some interesting, if slightly quirky, historical interpretations to bear on Canadian culture and identity. He has pleaded for us to find inspiration in the communalism of our past, while seeking individual distinction and excellence in our future. By doing so, we might save Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and public broadcasting from the miniature minds and third-rate souls who currently run the country. It is quite a good try. It also sounds a little like a stimulating application for entry into the power elite. It is reminiscent of an interview given to David Lewis, the future labour leader and social democratic politician, when he applied for a Rhodes Scholarship. The story may be apocryphal, but it is said that he was asked what was the first thing he would do if he were to become prime minister. The youth replied instantly that he would nationalize the Canadian Pacific Railway. The head of the CPR was among the interviewers. David Lewis won the prize.


Howard A. Doughty was the founding editor of The College Quarterly. He is now book review editor of both The College Quarterly and The Innovation Journal, while splitting his time between his work as a professor of political economy at Seneca College and as a Steward for OPSEU Local 560 at Seneca College. He can be reached at <howardadoughty@yahoo.ca>.

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