Often it is the job of a great polemicist to state that what you think isn't really so. In fact, the correct version of events is pretty much the opposite of what you've been thinking. So brace yourself for a little intellectual jujitsu.
That's what John Ralston Saul has done in his recently published book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada.
Canada is largely a European creation you think. Wrong, argues Saul, we are a "Métis civilization."
In the book, Saul argues that, for 400 years, this country's skill at consensual politics and negotiation is the direct result of our aboriginal legacy. The ultimate impact of this native influence is no less than "the well being of the citizen."
John Ralston Saul is a good example of what's often called a "public intellectual." He's not an academic, but a writer who tackles the big subjects for a larger audience. He has been a Massey lecturer for the CBC, for the program I work on, Ideas. He is also the husband of former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
It's said that a good many Americans voted for George W. Bush all those elections ago because they would feel comfortable with him at a barbecue. Canadians would undoubtedly feel the same comfort with Saul at a dinner party. I have met him. He's gracious, eloquent and excellent company.
But in his polite and Canadian way, Saul has decided to turn the mythology of our country upside down.
"When I dig around in the roots of how we imagine ourselves, how we govern, how we live together in communities — how we treat one another when we are not being stupid — what I find is deeply Aboriginal," writes Saul. That's Aboriginal with a capital A.
Forget the usual suspects
Saul claims we'd be mistaken if we thought our "institutional and cultural inheritance" came from the usual suspects: "British parliamentary democracy, British and French justice, the Enlightenment, British liberalism, Western individualism … Judeo-Christian moral questions, Athenian principles of citizenship and democracy, Western capitalism, particularly its U.S. form."
Instead, he says, all the important traits we Canadians feel we have inherited from Western Civilization — tolerance, inclusiveness and fairness — we have actually learned from Canada's native peoples.
In Saul's view, the earliest settlers started by intermarrying with natives, which is why he calls Canada a Métis civilization. Aboriginals taught the bumbling Europeans pretty much everything worth knowing, from how to live on the land, to how to live with and listen to each other.
But then, in the 19th century, the British imperial elite decided to squelch this native contribution with its glorious oral and humane traditions. The imperialists did this by rewriting the history of Canada.
Controlling the story
As post-colonial writers like Franz Fanon tell us, those who control power, control the language. Those who control the way a history is framed, control the story and the reality that flows from it.
The winners construct reality in their own air-brushed image. They get to write (pun intended) the master narrative.
It is an argument that is now all very familiar, from high school classrooms to graduate studies departments.
But let's scale back from the soaring heights. What kind of evidence does Saul present?
He offers us stories and bold assertions. Some sound possible and others sound, frankly, to this reader, a bit of a stretch.
Saul argues that our Canadian predilection for negotiation, in domestic and in foreign affairs, seeps up from our aboriginal roots. Canada's native peoples, he says, were profoundly and instinctively egalitarian. They balanced collective and individual rights in consensual, healing circles.
Canada on the couch
So, Saul argues, Lester Pearson's great achievements in peacekeeping can be seen as a return to aboriginal principles. The same with our single-payer system of medicare. It's the "unconscious" result, Saul says, of aboriginal notions of inclusiveness and fairness.
Note the word "unconscious." Saul's 1995 Massey Lectures and the resulting book were entitled The Unconscious Civilization.
In many ways, John Ralston Saul is a chronicler of psychohistory, of the collective unconscious, if you will (to borrow from Carl Jung), of what it is to be Canadian.
However, when you are dealing with unconscious ideas, you can find truths everywhere, bubbling up from the cracks of historical memory. What surfaces in these instances is not necessarily true in any empirical sense. Psychohistories are hard to fact check.
In fact, they are more an interpretive art, an act of imagination. They can be brilliant, persuasive or unconvincing, depending on the rhetorical skills of the practitioner.
Note that Saul began his writing days as a novelist. Perhaps, in this latest book, with the best of intentions, he is returning to his muse, the imagination.
The big perhaps
I use the word "perhaps" purposely. Saul employs "perhaps" a good many times, especially in the opening of this book. It's a very enticing strategy. It allows a writer all sorts of leeway (I know, I use it myself).
Marshall McLuhan used to call his insights "probes." That meant they were conditional, mere suggestions. Saying "perhaps" before a bold assertion is a way of asking us to see the world in a different way, without trying to be authoritative.
One of the problems with psychohistory is the return to stock characters: aboriginals are the princes and princesses of the land; the colonial British are part of the dark forces of repression.
Unfortunately, this scheme can lead to an easy dichotomy. If well-intentioned negotiations fail, that can only be the result of European ideas asserting themselves and overriding the unconscious, benevolent, mental schema of right-thinking aboriginals.
Still, there is much that is enjoyably provocative in Saul's thesis. And by the way, this isn't the first time an idea like this has been tried.
A century ago, a now forgotten American writer, William James Sidis (one of the great child prodigies of his day), argued that the New England political system was profoundly influenced by the democratic federation of Penacook Indians.
Yes, indigenous forms of democracy probably did develop all over the world, not just in Britain and Western Europe. That is valuable to be reminded of.
But how useful (or truthful) is it to bring us back to a bygone ideal of natives once again having their best and most civilized ideas stolen by the white man? Are we then to believe that all the European ideals that flowed into the making of Canada just deceptive junk? Haven't we moved well past that point of departure by now?