After all of the talk of what is 'critical' about Axel Honneth’s Pathologies of Reason it represents a bit of transition to read John Ralston Saul's most recent book A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Viking: 2008). In a word, his book is not critical in the technical sense of a rejection of dogmatism and an effort to constantly 'tarry with the negative'. Rather, Saul's book is for the most part just a bad book in nearly every way a book can be bad -- moralistic, elitist, boring, repetitive, one-sided, etc. But it might be said that the book is arguably built on an interesting idea, and, that is, that Canada is a 'Métis civilization'. The book's main strength is contained in this provocation, but it appears to have failed there too since the response to the book so far have been minimal if non-existent beyond the occasional remark in The Globe and Mail. One can find glowing reviews out there, but they are far from critical and for the most part do not address Saul’s exaggerated and over-blown thesis. The overall reaction appears to be that ‘oh my, Ralston Saul is at it again. Duck!’.
There is much to be explained about the main idea, but the gist of it is that Saul is enticed by the idea that Canada was created as a product of negotiation between aboriginal peoples and the 'newcomers'. He argues that even though most Canadians, particularly its elites in government and the Universities, may not admit it, Canadians love to negotiate and basically reject war. The Métis, as a distinct people, are the direct outcome of Canada’s ongoing love of negotiation that goes back to the beginning of the world and continues to characterize the country to this day. One gets the feeling that Canada will always love to negotiate for as long as the world lasts. Saul finds evidence of his thesis everywhere – in various aspects of colonialism, in the way that many Canadians reject and exclude the First Nations today, the way Canadians reject certain forms of European progress and embrace a hybrid form of citizenship, the ‘obsession with egalitarianism’, the ‘minimal’ approach to environmental protection, and the list goes on and on. As the reader learns, if Canada has any good ideas or practices they are due to its Aboriginal cultural roots, and if it has any bad ideas or practices these have to do with various Canadian elites who long for Canada to express its connection with Europe or with the US (via Europe). So, when Canadians ignore issues of Aboriginal poverty or when they disregard and exploit the environment this is because it is following Euro-centric principles. But, when it gives way and realizes its ‘true self’, this is because it is following Aboriginal, holistic principles stating that ‘everything is one’. (This obviously downplays the holism that is part of major tenants of European theory, but that issue is for another day).
One of the ‘truths’ that Saul discovers is that Canada rejects linear thinking (history, progress) and instead embraces ‘an ever-enlarging circle’. This, again, is the specific form of egalitarianism in Canada that is derived from Aboriginal ideas. The circle is inclusive and tolerant, whereas the linear line is not. Here is how Saul puts it:
In other words, this perspective wishes to bring Aboriginal ideas to the forefront and to then render contingent those ideas and practices that are connected to Europe in any way (which are not clearly defined, except as caricature, including several derogatory statements about Kant and the US). The intention is clearly strategic: to generate a dialogue about what is working in Canada and what is not according to the author’s perspective. However, the effect of this strategic effort is a major polemic and eventually an exaggeration about how Canada was formed as a nation-state at least since the late nineteenth century.
To idealize both sides of the equation – to claim that Francophone and Anglophone ideas are equally racist and that Aboriginal ideas are essentially open and morally superior – seems to amount to little more than the standard Canadian version of American bashing. The elephant in the room of the book seems to be that Canada is better than the US on almost any issue. For example, Saul believes that the Canadian principles of ‘Peace, Order and Good Government’ are flawed primarily because it includes the word ‘order’. A belief in ‘peace’ and ‘good government’ perhaps characterizes Canada, but ‘order’ does not. The latter, largely a legal construct, was only incorporated into the motto to appease the (Tory) Loyalists coming into Canada from England and the US. It ‘was their myth, not ours’, he writes.
So, in one sense this book is an ongoing contribution to Canada’ distinctive form of nationalism. It is a form of nationalism that is resolutely anti-American, and which is hard to overstate or really even come to terms with. But, in another sense, this book reminds one of just how nasty and passive-aggessive Canada’s nationalist scene can really get. Unrelenting in its effort to portray Canada as the best place on earth (rather unfairly on most issues), the insidious form of nationalism in Canada becomes dangerously uncritical and dogmatic in the worst senses of those terms. But, according to the former Viceregal Consort John Ralston Saul, Canada’s nationalism is the best thing its got.