john-ralston-saul

Canadian writer, philosopher and former vice-regal consort John Ralston Saul is the new president of International PEN. ((Sophie Boussols/John Ralston Saul))

One of the thrusts of John Ralston Saul's term of leadership at International PEN will be preservation of indigenous languages, including Canada's minority languages.

As many as 40 First Nations languages might be threatened in Canada, the Canadian author and commentator said in an interview from Austria on Friday. He was speaking two days after being elected president of the international writers organization, which works to promote freedom of expression and help authors who have been imprisoned or otherwise persecuted.

"What could be a greater loss of freedom of expression than to lose your language completely," the Canadian writer and essayist told CBC Radio's Q cultural affairs show.

"It makes you think about it very differently, and that is happening in Canada. People from very different circumstances responded to that, so I'll be talking a lot about that over the next three years."

It's an issue that he has raised in Linz, Austria, where International PEN is having its annual conference.

When a language disappears, culture also disappears along with it, he said.

Ralston Saul said he became interested in PEN after living in North Africa in the 1980s and witnessing the impact on fellow writers there of government crackdowns on freedom of expression.

"I watched them being arrested or beaten up or having their houses ransacked or having to go into exile, and so when I joined PEN, it was with this specific idea that I was lucky to be a writer in Canada," he said.

He belongs to both anglophone and francophone chapters of Canadian PEN, which are among 140 such organizations around the world.

Canadian PEN has been particularly effective with its writers-in-exile programs, which provides shelter to up to 25 writers at any one time, he said.

International PEN, based in London, is working with 900 to 1000 writers in prison or in danger at present, including Uighurs living on the Chinese border and writers in repressive regimes such as Iran.

"It's incredibly successful considering its an author's organization and therefore poor at getting authors out of crazy situations and keeping them alive in the face of government policy," Ralston Saul said.

He said he's going to try to find ways to work with governments to improve freedom of expression.

"You can't just say isn't it scandalous that this government is acting this way. You have to actually think what is happening there. What can we do about it," he said.

It would be exciting to "actually to convince governments that it isn't worth their while to try and limit freedom of speech in this way. There's no bang for the buck in shutting down freedom of speech, in fact transparency and diverse voices is a great stabilizer."

Ralston Saul is author of most recently The Collapse of Globalism and A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada as well as the popular 1992 book Voltaire's Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the Westand many other works of non-fiction and fiction.