Are We a Métis Nation?

And has John Ralston Saul had the final word on Canadian identity?

Ever since he burst onto the philosophical scene in 1992 with Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a somewhat overdramatic look at the evolution of the western mind, John Ralston Saul has been engaged in two quixotic intellectual projects: bashing the Enlightenment and trying to make sense of Canada. The conceit that buckles these two projects together is the notion that the search for the Canadian identity will come to an end only when we come to see that what justifies Canada, the reason Canada makes any sense at all, is that it is an experiment in counter-modernity. Canada’s founding rationale and ongoing purpose in the world is to serve as a bulwark against the American steamroller of technology, capitalism and individualism.

This makes Saul the most obvious contemporary heir to George Grant, the gloomy philosopher and religious thinker whose 1965 essay in pessimistic anti-nationalism, Lament for a Nation, set the terms of debate for English-speaking Canada for the next 40 years. As Grant saw it, Canada was destined to be absorbed into the broader American project, a fate that was heralded by the glee with which the downfall of John Diefenbaker was greeted by the proconsuls of empire on Bay Street. But as even Grant eventually admitted, Canada’s demise was not really due to political weakness. Instead, it was the inevitable consequence of the spread of liberal individualism and consumer capitalism—what Americans so charmingly call progress. The mistake Canadians made, Grant argued, was trying to establish a conservative country in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth.

For the past 40 years, English-speaking Canadian nationalists have accepted the premises of Grant’s argument but tried to find a way of denying his conclusion. That is, they have conceded that America’s liberal individualism and free market ideology are a threat to our existence as an independent nation. But instead of accepting that Canada must eventually disappear, these nationalists have tried to hitch our survival to the development of a national character that is sufficiently robust and distinct from America to underwrite our continued existence as a separate country.

And so we have tried on a handful of versions of this elusive identity over the years, from Scandinavian-style socialism to Trudeauvian bi-nationalism to the hyper-cosmopolitanism described in pollster Michael Adams’s post-NAFTA bestseller, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. Not one of these has really panned out, for more or less the reasons that even Grant was unsentimental enough to acknowledge—we simply are not socialist enough or bilingual enough, and we are certainly not cosmopolitan enough. That is why the most recent attempts at articulating an independent Canadian way (in books such as Jennifer Welsh’s At Home in the World: Canada’s Global Future for the 21st Century and Michael Byers’s Intent for a Nation) have shied away from the quicksilver beadings of “identity” and focused on the more prosaic enterprise of pushing for distinctive policies and institutions both domestically and on the world stage.

No such shyness for John Ralston Saul. Almost alone amongst his contemporaries, he continues to stalk the Snuffleupagus of nationalism known as the Canadian Identity. In a prodigious series of books, essays and lectures over the past decade and a half, he has patiently explained to Canadians how our country came to be, in the service of helping us understand where we ought to take it. Along the way, he has made heroes out of Baldwin and Lafontaine, reminded us (through his pamphlet on Joseph Howe) that we have a homegrown tradition of free speech and—perhaps most importantly— helped shake us of the illusion that we are a young country. Canadians, he keeps reminding us, possess one of the world’s longest uninterrupted constitutional traditions.

What’s the point of all of this historical heavy weather? For Saul, as for every archaeologist of Canadianness before him, the goal is to show that we are not just different from the Americans, but different in a way that matters, that makes Canada distinct, coherent, necessary and good. In his first serious cut at the problem, Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, Saul argued that Canada’s distinctiveness resides in our acceptance of our bicultural identity and refusal to conform and behave like a mainstream country. To be Canadian is to be one half of a Siamese twin, and while others may want us to separate and become “normalized,” we continue to opt for the more interesting and less banal path of hybridity.

Stripped of its countercultural stylings (Canada as the non-conforming rebel of the United Nations), that book was mostly just a repetition of the old belief, expressed almost exclusively by people who live in Ontario, that having Quebec around somehow makes Canada a more interesting place than the United States (or France, or England, or Germany, or any other “normal” country for that matter). But over the past decade, Quebec has steadily retreated from the Canadian scene, effectively helped off the stage by a succession of weak-kneed prime ministers eager to prove that they are hip to what Quebeckers really want. With the Siamese twins no longer even pretending to be on speaking terms, the old “Quebec makes Canada more interesting” angle does not really wash, and anyone looking for a place to anchor the Canadian identity is going to have to search in deeper and more uncertain waters.

Which brings us to A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. According to John Ralston Saul, Canada is not a “European country” made in the image of Enlightenment values inherited from France and Great Britain. Instead, he argues that we are actually a Métis nation, our ideas and institutions shaped by the original and ongoing interaction between the English- and French-speaking immigrants and the First Nations who were running things when the white men arrived. Indeed, Saul goes even further and claims that we are far more aboriginal than we are European, and our failure to recognize this is what prevents us from becoming the strong, confident and progressive country that is our birthright.

Canada’s real problem, then, is that we do not know who we are. We imagine that we are a European offshoot, a Siamese twin born of English and French parents, and as a result we constantly look for guidance to European principles. But the fit is always awkward, because these European influences are in many ways at odds with the aboriginal spirit that animates our real identity. So we are alienated from our true national self, and virtually every problem that afflicts Canada right now—poisonous federal-provincial relations, an ineffectual foreign policy, excessive poverty rates and an underfunded healthcare system—is a consequence of that alienation. What Canada needs more than anything is psychotherapy. We need to get back in touch with our aboriginal identity, and only then will all be right in the peaceable kingdom.

There are three stages to the argument, beginning with a historical account of the earliest interactions between whites and Natives and the development of our Métis character. Part two of the book explains how after Confederation we came to forget our Métis origins, and the very nature of the country was distorted by subsequent misinterpretations of our founding documents. Finally, Saul indulges himself in a fun romp about Canada’s cowardly and emasculated elites, attributing their dysfunction to the aforementioned alienation: they do not understand the true nature of themselves or the country, and so they continually lapse into a colonial and subservient mentality in their relations first with Britain and then, later, the United States.

Saul’s story begins—as every sensible essay on the Canadian identity must—with the fur trade, specifically with the economic and domestic relationships that were established between Europeans and Natives over the first 250 years of settler life in Canada. As Saul points out, more often than not it was the Natives who were teaching and helping the newcomers survive, and in marrying Native women most European men were marrying up—greatly improving their social, political and economic lot in life. These relationships were partnerships in every meaningful way, and through this constant intermingling the Métis character of the Canadian people was shaped.

For the most part, this is a restatement of the old Laurentian hypothesis, first articulated by Harold Innis and then elaborated by historians such as Donald Creighton. With an economy based primarily on the fur trade, the Europeans left their bases in Montreal and on the shores of Hudson Bay, following the river systems clear across the country and into the great expanse of the northwest. The upshot, as Innis famously argued, is that Canada exists not despite its geography but because of it, with the political development of the country following the original waterborne lines of communication that drove the fur trade.

Saul expands on this in two distinct ways. First, he emphasizes the oft-ignored role of the Natives as full partners in the military, civil and commercial affairs of the Canadas for the first 250 years of their existence. Since then, though, we have been engaged in what he calls “a double denial”: a denial of our own history, along with a denial that aboriginals even exist in a way that matters to our own flourishing as a country.

Saul is surely right about this. In one of the strongest and most convincing passages in the book, he argues that the “single greatest failure of the Canadian experiment, so far, has been our inability to normalize—that is, to internalize consciously— the First Nations as the senior founding pillar of our civilization.” In such a normal situation, we would ask for their advice as a matter of course, look for the input of our First Nations on all the great questions of the day. He is also right to lament the way we now shoehorn our Natives into one of two narratives, the romantic and the realist. Romantics go on about how pure and noble the savages seem, while the realists insist on pointing out how corrupt and ignoble they actually are. Saul again: “The idea of the native as a normal person in his or her own right or the idea of an inclusive, fair sense of history are so blurred as to be almost erased.”

This is smart, sensible writing. But when the argument shifts from history to identity, and from analyzing our politics to psychoanalyzing the country, things go seriously off the rails.

As Saul sees it, virtually every worthwhile aspect of Canadian culture, policy and institutions we owe to our aboriginal heritage, although it is clear that by worthwhile, Saul means those aspects of Canada that are favoured by the political left. Single-payer health care, environmental protectionism, peacekeeping, soft power diplomacy, even the egalitarian elements of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—these all supposedly bear the unmistakable stamp of aboriginal ideas and influences. More generally, Saul claims that all the great virtues of the Canadian personality are owed to the country’s Métis character, and so our desire for harmony and balance, our preference for diversity, inclusion and complexity, our renewed interest in egalitarianism—all are emanations of our aboriginal soul.

Saul is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he wants to argue that we have systematically denied the legitimate place of Natives in our national narrative and shunted them to the margins of our society and our consciousness. Yet at the same time, he claims that the way our society actually functions and the best parts of our national character are legacies of our aboriginal origins. These points are in considerable tension, and the way Saul tries to harmonize them is by invoking false consciousness: Canadians are basically living in denial about their true selves, a denial that is distorting our politics and holding us back as a country. Our great failures, such as our reluctance to live up to our commitments under the Kyoto accord, or the folly of entering into a free trade pact with the Americans, result from not listening to the aboriginal imperatives in our hearts.

Is Canada a Métis country? Perhaps it is. Common sense certainly says that it would be surprising if the complex interactions between whites and Natives over a quarter millennium did not have some effect on the way all of us see the world. There are no doubt many Canadians who find it romantic to think that there is a direct line between the goals of the Red River Rebellion and those of the Council of Canadians, or that Lester Pearson got the inspiration for peacekeeping by channelling his inner Chief Poundmaker.

But a psychoanalytic interpretation of history is nothing to found a country on, and there are far more direct ways of defending Canadian values than by putting the whole country on the couch. If he thinks free trade is bad and single-payer health care good, Saul should just say so and give some arguments for why that is the case. As for his habit of invoking purportedly aboriginal values such as balance and harmony to support his preferred social policies, the only purpose that serves is allowing him to accuse anyone who holds different views of being either alienated or un-Canadian, and it is hard to see how that could be a good thing.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein liked to say that the trick to philosophy was knowing when to stop asking the questions that lead you astray. Similarly, the trick to being a Canadian is knowing when to stop obsessing over the question of our national identity. By reimagining Canada as a Métis country, John Ralston Saul has almost certainly brought English Canada’s ongoing search for an identity to an end. He has also, inadvertently, revealed how inherently futile the whole exercise has been.

Nevertheless, I have to pay credit to Saul. Although I disagree fundamentally with a lot of his intellectual adventurism, I will admit he does it better than anyone else in the country. Canada—especially English Canada—needs all the challenging voices it can get, and Saul’s is an important and necessary one.