Sunday February 07, 2016

John Ralston Saul: Indigenous Peoples don't need sympathy, they need you to take action

John Ralston Saul's latest book, The Comeback, offers a condensed history of issues affecting Indigenous Peoples.

John Ralston Saul's latest book, The Comeback, offers a condensed history of issues affecting Indigenous Peoples. (courtesy John Ralston Saul)

Listen 14:15

John Ralston Saul is an award-winning essayist, novelist and philosopher, but at the height of Idle No More, he was compelled to lend his pen to the issues affecting Indigenous Peoples, creating The Comeback.

In other words, he decided to act.

But this wasn't the first time Saul dedicated his attention to the topic of indigenous issues. In 2008, he published A Fair Country, a book that explores the influence Indigenous Peoples had on the shape of what Canada had become — without being given any credit.

"I thought I'd done my thing, I thought I'd said what I had to say on the subject … and then things really didn't move. And then Idle No More happened, and I thought this was the most fantastic breakthrough. And I felt that I had to make another attempt at talking to non-indigenous Canadians."

The Comeback book cover

The Comeback went through 28 drafts, which is 20 more than Saul usually writes. (courtesy John Ralston Saul)

With a federal election on the horizon, Saul wrote and published The Comeback to share a simple message: "This is the single most important issue in the country.… You should be paying attention, you should be speaking up, you should be deciding who you'll vote for on the basis of what political parties say they will do on this big, enormous issue."

Saul added he was also inspired by people around him who identified with the spirit of Idle No More but didn't know where to take it, or how to channel their desire to get involved. 

"They didn't have the language, they didn't have the arguments, they didn't have the mythologies," he said. "They knew it meant something important but they didn't know how to express it in their own terms." 

Taking it back to treaties

Digging into the deep history of treaties, Saul sought advice from indigenous authors and elders and drew on writings from leading indigenous thinkers to offer non-indigenous Canadians a primer of this country's history — a history he himself didn't learn about until he reached adulthood.  

"For about 125 years, give or take, the Canadian government has acted extremely badly — even in a way which should be called evil — breaking treaties, breaking agreements," he said. "At a certain point, you have to turn around and say, it really isn't good enough for citizens to say 'I feel so badly about what happened.' It's a way of getting out of doing something."

Saul said his hope for the book, and speaking engagements that came after it was published, was to motivate others to turn that sympathy into action, by voting for parties based on their willingness to act on these issues.

"I think that if you insist on sympathy you're trying to avoid action, and that's when I say it becomes a new form of racism," Saul said.

"Because you're avoiding reality, you're avoiding what actually needs to be done for people who have every right, every constitutional, historic and treaty right to these things and are not getting them."