Don't Call It a Comeback
A review of The Comeback, by John Ralston Saul
The response to the Idle No More Movement has generally wavered between the dismissive and the laudatory. In the latter group, thinkers and writers have emerged to say that things are different now, potentially better. We are changing. Among these forecasters are Bob Rae, Bill Gallagher, Ken Coates, Douglas Bland, Lloyd Axworthy and now John Ralston Saul. They are here to warn you/us that there will be no stopping the phoenix-like re-emergence of Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee and, yes, Métis peoples (as well as many others).
Saul is among the most progressive of these non-Native (white) men. He is a political philosopher who is deeply convinced, as he has previously argued, that Canada’s founding myth is indigenous, rooted in the Métis civilization—our collective political culture born of anglophone, francophone and indigenous heritage. He has consistently submitted that the denial of this shared indigenous heritage is at the heart of our national ambiguity, discontent and even dysfunction.
His new book, The Comeback, distances Saul even further from this cohort, primarily because of his exclusive focus on Canadian culpability. He demands that Canadians look in the mirror and take responsibility for colonial history and for continuing to elect and fund colonial politicians and bureaucrats, and, finally, he urges Canadians to accept that restitution will be required. Restitution, a new concept for Saul and one he attributes to Mohawk intellectual Taiaiake Alfred, involves for him a general “shift in power and in economic wealth.”
In addition to holding Canadians accountable, Saul does an admirable job of dissecting the “termination” legislation that galvanized the Idle No More movement. For example, on the weakening of rules regarding leasing reserve land contained in omnibus bill C-45, he rightly notes that, “there is always the desire of Canadian authorities to reduce the amount of land held by indigenous people and, failing that, to weaken their authority over their land … This has not changed.” Scorn is then heaped generously on these “authorities”—the Department of Aboriginal Affairs with the help of lawyers in the Department of Justice.
To a very significant degree, Saul gets it. There is much in The Comeback that resonates. But there are shortcomings, too, that emanate from the natural though unstated continuity between Saul’s previous work A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada and this new book. The former describes an enlightened birth of Canada while the latter laments the nation’s fall. The obvious prescriptive features of The Comeback—directed at Canadians—is to reverse course and get back to a sort of innate Canadian exceptionalism. Ultimately, this means any transformation in the relationship will be relatively superficial because nothing fundamental about the country’s institutions really needs to change. The implication for indigenous peoples then might simply be a future under a kinder, gentler settler colonialism.
We see this not in Saul’s assessment of the comeback, which we agree is very much a material and ideational reality spanning many generations, but in the shape of the future. Specifically, we see his emphasis on voting in or out unsupportive and delinquent governments, and using the courts to achieve justice as all reinforcing an unthreatening politics of charity: sophisticated and pragmatic, but also relatively benign. We contrast this approach with the work of indigenous intellectuals who have emerged to describe the comeback in more provocative terms—what is increasingly called indigenous resurgence—that call for disengagement from and alternatives to state forms of recognition and reconciliation. These thinkers emphasize Canada as home to multiple sovereignties and jurisdictions of indigenous nations and legal orders, rather than collapsing them into an idyllically common, mythological national identity.
The Limits of Civic Solidarity
One of the surprising elements of The Comeback is the emphasis on Canadian politics. That is, Saul spends many pages chronicling the democratic deficit of recent years: the erosion of “responsible government,” the power held in the executive, the lack of civic action, the increasingly puppet-like governor general and a perceived decline in authentic Canadian political culture. This emphasis seems to point to the underlying goal of the book: building solidarity between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Saul believes the former can provide the power and instinct for Canadians to help retrieve legitimate governance and democracy in Canada. Together we can then begin to prioritize indigenous issues at the ballot box.
For example, Saul ponders with great attention the significance of indigenous peoples leading the protests against the omnibus legislation in 2013 introduced by the Conservative government. He asserts that the Idle No More movement showed how indigenous leadership “is demonstrating a clear understanding of parliamentary democracy … Aboriginal leaders understand that you must be willing to go into the streets and stay there if your cause is great.” Never mind that the protests failed and the bill became law; there is inspiration to be taken here. Indigenous peoples put their bodies on the line to challenge the current political status quo and Saul is willing and ready to do his part by pushing Canadians to act on indigenous issues. He pleads sincerely in his final chapter:
What stops us—what stops you—from voting people out of Parliament, out of office, because of their refusal to act on indigenous matters? What stops us—you—from voting people into Parliament, into office, because they have a fair and urgent commitment on indigenous questions at the top of their action plan?
This is a dubious strategy and one that has not fared well in the history of Canadian politics. Significant numbers of Canadians, we believe, are willing to speak up for a serious improvement in the relationship with indigenous peoples in this country. But who will they support: the masked land defenders of Elsipogtog? Or will they choose those groups that fit the all-too-Canadian paradigm of “civil” behaviour and the current, unthreatening economic and social status quo?
What happens, in other words, when the idea of being in solidarity (being “good treaty partners” in Saul’s words) contradicts being “good citizens” of the state? Or, when supporting indigenous struggles pits Canadians against jobs in hard-struck resource towns, against the flow of supply chains that Canada’s national economy depends upon? No, the reality is that indigenous interests are too diverse and, let’s face it, irreconcilable with Canadian interests, for voting solidarity to produce tangible results outside what the majority of non-Native peoples (and governments they elect) are willing to permit.
Perhaps a historical precedent can act as an antidote to this kind of thinking. In 1993, Jean Chrétien, then leader of the federal Liberals, announced the party’s Aboriginal Election Platform as part of the Liberal Red Book of policy. Key indigenous strategists and thinkers were hired to form the team that developed the platform. As a result, it included important commitments, which Chrétien supported. By 1996, Ovide Mercredi was burning the Red Book. Not a single campaign promise had been fulfilled. A lesson had been learned.
Reconsidering the “Legal Winning Streak”
A much more common-sense solution to the problems in the general indigenous-Canada relationship revolves around the courts. Much has been made of what members of the consultancy industry have dubbed the aboriginal “legal winning streak” and Saul is certainly not immune to its seductions. In fact, it is the courts where Saul sees the most promise to reorient our relationship from one of paternalism to equality. He writes that arguments and decisions in courts show “the continuing ability of Aboriginal peoples to shape not just how Canada functions or will function, but how Canada imagines itself.”
Yet even in light of the recent and much-celebrated Tsilhqot’in and Keewatin decisions, no court in Canada has ever recognized the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. In fact, courts have taken careful steps to lay down a framework allowing provinces to infringe on aboriginal title if it is in the interests of the public good, and these two cases are examples of that calculation. So as long as courts privilege the rights of the many at the expense of the few and as long as indigenous legal orders are conditional on the convenience of Canadians, the stubborn refusal to take indigenous jurisdictional claims seriously will persist.
This is what anthropologist Michael Asch, in On Being Here to Stay: Treaties and Aboriginal Rights in Canada, calls the “major impasse” that Canada has created to reconciling the relationship between newcomers and indigenous peoples. This impasse is captured, Asch believes, in the precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada case R. v. Van Der Peet, where Justice Lamar defines the basic purpose of aboriginal peoples’ constitutional rights to be the reconciliation of the pre-existence of aboriginal societies with the sovereignty of the Crown. Asch asserts that
this logically ought not be the case, if for no other reason than that the political rights of Indigenous peoples already existed at the time that Crown sovereignty was asserted and, therefore, it is the question of how the Crown gained sovereignty that requires reconciliation with the pre-existence of Indigenous societies and not the other way around.
Courts have been unwilling to address this issue. It is certainly true that the case law on aboriginal rights and title has been expanding in recent years, with recognition of indigenous proprietary interests, the special nature of their relationship to the land/underlying title to the land, and their constitutional rights to their treaties and unceded territories. But there is another side to this story not often told. The courts continue to grant provinces underlying title to land and jurisdiction and they continue to unjustifiably view Canadian sovereignty as absolute. They continue, too, to frame the normative nature of our relationship as charitable. Indigenous rights to land are simultaneously seen as inherent, yet treated as delegated from Crown authority, therefore contingent on Canada’s generosity.
The Comeback versus Indigenous Resurgence
Reflecting on these two broad points, we want to emphasize that electoral politics and court “victories” are not strictly unhelpful. They are tools that can potentially lead to some gains. Moreover, they are somewhat subsidiary to Saul’s commitment of changing the narrative and the myths we tell ourselves that underwrites A Fair Country and The Comeback. However, as prescriptions they also reveal the underlying, unthreatening politics that Saul advocates. After all, he calls his most prescriptive chapter “Easy Steps”! This is the key point on which we depart. The future will not be easy.
The type of change required includes dramatic economic and political shifts. As Dene political philosopher Glen Coulthard writes in Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, without “a massive transformation in the political economy of contemporary settler-colonialism, any efforts to rebuild our nations will remain parasitic on capitalism, and thus on the perpetual exploitation of our lands and labor,” clashing fundamentally with indigenous values of reciprocity with the land. And politically, in Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson’s new book Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States, she motions toward a future where indigenous peoples are not forced to struggle against demands that they be Canadian (or American) citizens, give up land and be absorbed into the logic of property; in sum, that they are not forced to stop being politically indigenous.
These recent works by Coulthard and Simpson reject the Canadian politics of reconciliation and instead posit a politics of refusal. This is simply the culmination of generations of attempts to make change in collaboration with a liberal Canada. While it may seem a segregationist turn (a justifiable position, if that were the case), it does not have to be. Invoking the Anishnaabe prophecy, Leanne Simpson describes the deepening of our collective resurgence. In Lighting the Eighth Fire: The Liberation, Resurgence, and Protection of Indigenous Nations, she writes about the Oshkimaadziig, a new people who reject colonialism, assimilation and destruction of the land, and who work together toward a post-material world. This can happen when “settler society [chooses] to change their ways, to decolonize their relationships with the land and Indigenous Nations, and to join with us in building a sustainable future based on mutual recognition, justice, and respect.”
In some ways this is a similar narrative to Saul’s, a mythology that guides us into the future. But there is a fundamental contrast. Where Saul views Canadian institutions and political culture as naturally good, we assert that they are implicated in creating and nurturing settler colonialism. Saul states early in the book, that, “either you believe in the legitimacy of the structure of the state or you don’t. If you don’t, then that leaves only power, which is a form of absolutism.” We do not believe in the legitimacy of the structures of the state. But neither do we believe in absolutism.
There is another way of looking at things, or another way of changing the narrative. Non-indigenous Canadians must recognize that any restoration of the relationship with indigenous nations will first require a “Canadian comeback,” a reorientation of the political economy away from the mythologies of liberal capitalism toward a more sustainable and just economic and social system. At a minimum this means committing to a redistribution of land, resources and power. Ideally, though, it means collective transformation.
If indigenous peoples are indeed leading this comeback, it is not to fill an ethical and civic gap in an increasingly undemocratic Canada. It is to transcend Canada.