Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Telling It Like It Is: On John Ralston Saul

Review by Gwen Point

A Fair Country: Telling truths about Canada.
John Ralston Saul, Viking, 2008

A Fair Country: telling truths about Canada is a book that from a First Nation educator’s perspective is welcomed, for its messages affirm what many First Nation leaders have expressed to governments of the day for generations. Indeed, First Nation leaders have continued to hold the governments of the day accountable to the “truth(s)” from the earliest cross-cultural encounters through to present-day treaty negotiations.

One hears the expression about starting to read a book and not being able to put it down: This is that kind of book. From the introduction to the last chapter, Ralston Saul captures the reader’s attention as only the “truth” can do. Accordingly, as one who has heard from elders about the many struggles, and who has witnessed generations of colonialism, in this review I’ll share with you from a First Nation educator’s perspective. We can start by addressing the notions of “truth”, colonialism, and other key phrases such as “aboriginal inspiration around a concept of peace, fairness and good government.” Additionally, we can comment on Raulston Saul’s understanding of First Nations’ traditions such as the meaning of the Circle, marriage and leadership.

Ralston Saul has woven the “truths about Canada” in a manner that leaves no doubt in one’s mind about who is responsible for the plight of First Nations struggles today. There have been a number of books written about First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples that share the history and dismal reality for First Nations People. Saul reports on this dismal history; more importantly however, he includes a more recent history that includes success stories amongst First Nations in education, business and leadership.

Very important here is the notion that the “colonial mentality” still exists today to the detriment of First Nations and Canada as a whole. For this reason, A Fair Country is a book should be read by all Canadians and both the private and public education systems.

As a First Nation educator teaching in variety of settings from K-12 to post-secondary, the words I often hear after sharing the dismal history of First Nations—from the laws imposed that banned the potlatch, to the residential school era to the Sixties scoop—are “I didn’t know.” Some folks are embarrassed to be Canadian and not understand how this could happen in Canada. Some want to know why Canadians still do not know what happened to “Indians”. Ralston Saul discusses this history, explains the why’s, and suggests that the elite in Canada has had a stake in not acknowledging the plight of First Nations.

I attended a presentation by Ralston Saul on his book and it was encouraging that his book was well received by the First Nations in attendance. It was also very special to see a local First Nation elder, a well respected First Nation leader, and a young local First Nation sing Hip Hop that included her traditional language. Given the recent apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to First Nations for the residential school era, and as a First Nations raised in an era where racism was commonplace—when you couldn’t secure a place to rent or a job, or weren’t served in a restaurant because you were an Indian; when you knew too well what hatred and fear look and feel like—it was somewhat hopeful to be in the audience knowing that the response to Ralston Saul’s book will help to create a better understanding about the plight of First Nations and our issues.

Saul uses the terms First Nations and aboriginal proficiently, in a way that informs the reader of his understanding of these terms. As an educator, some of the questions that are asked routinely by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people are, ‘what is the difference between an aboriginal or First Nation’? What about an Indian, a native’? The well-meaning person usually wants to know in order to avoid offending anyone, while the not so well-meaning person usually does not want to hear the answer. By way of appreciation, the term “First Nation” was created by our leaders and elders opposed to having terms imposed upon us, and because First Nations were the original people.

By contrast the term Indian came from the first explorers and setters. In many First Nation communities, leaders share how Columbus was looking for a shorter route to India and landed on Canada’s east coast where the first people he encountered were covered in red ochre, that is still being used today. Thus was coined the term “red Indian”. (Nowadays, many First Nations joke that they are glad he wasn’t looking for Turkey.) Oddly, the term “Indian” is still the legal term used by government today. The term “native” was used after Indian became unpopular with First Nations. The term “aboriginal” is a more inclusive term used to address First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Given this understanding of the different terms used to address First Nations, and that First Nation people carry the traditions and are the First Peoples of North America, Ralston Saul perhaps could have used the term ‘First Nations’ in his opening remarks, suggesting “We are a People of ‘First Nations’ Inspiration”, rather than ‘aboriginal.’

The notion of truth from a First Nation perspective is simple. However, to explain it in any deeper context, whether traditional, social, or political as Saul does, could be another book. Perhaps the notion of “truth” might be too simple. Similarly, “words” and the “notion” of spoken words is important to understand from a First Nation perspective. Ralston Saul discusses how First Nations have an active oral tradition and this can be difficult to appreciate unless one is raised in a traditional “oral” society. First Nations have an oral tradition, yet talking and being verbal was generally minimal. My grandmother would ask “how are you going to think about what you seen if this’, pointing to my mouth, “if this is going all the time?” Or “how are you going to think about what you hear if this is going all the time?” She would also ask her grandchildren to check with their mind and heart before saying anything, and would explain that the reason why our mouth is between our heart and our mind is to remind us to check with both before speaking.

My grandfather would also caution us to be careful when we talk and not to say hurtful words. Hurtful words spoken to someone are worse than hitting someone, for a bruise heals but words stay with a person and they can become an illness. First Nations understand how important words are. More importantly, we understand that we must be responsible for what we say and responsible for what we do. There is very little trust amongst First Nations for the government of the day as history depicts how the words of the governments have not been truthful. Many First Nations still today live in third world conditions next to urban communities that display wealth which many First Nation neighbours will never experience.

Ralston Saul does not go into depth with First Nation traditions but perhaps like any good book his approach will encourage readers to learn more. He describes the notion of marrying-up and the notion of the Circle. Many of the early traders married First Nation women so they could secure trade and passage through the First Nation territories. First Nations understood this form of union as some marriages would be arranged amongst First Nations for the same reasons, to access resources and create an alliance with other nations. While most of the early traders left their First Nation wives, Ralston Saul notes the successful marriages between Molly Brandt, Six Nations Ontario, and William Johnson, an Alberta Metis leader whose parents were married in the mid-1800’s; and between British Columbia Governor, James Douglas who married a local First Nation woman. These examples are important and welcomed, for there is a shift underway and more pride in being aboriginal. He also describes the many contemporary successful First Nations attending universities and the many First Nation leaders who have made a difference in their communities like Jack Anawak, “one of the founders of Nunavut.”

Being ashamed for being an Indian growing up and not understanding why was common amongst many First Nations. It was also uncommon to see an Indian work in a business. One incident where a First Nations woman worked at a checkout stand at a local grocery store was a welcome surprise and I felt proud until her look told us without words, “don’t you dare acknowledge me as an Indian”. I didn’t acknowledge her. I also knew how she felt. Today it is very different: I will have young and older people approach me and tell me with pride that they have aboriginal ancestry.

As an educator, people will ask me what the answer is to helping First Nations. It took me years to understand there is no one answer; rather, it will take change on all levels across the agencies and it will take books like Ralston Saul’s to shift Canadians to accept the responsibility to make change based on the truth.

Ralston Saul has addressed the notion of the Circle in his last chapter called “A Circle of Fairness”. He describes the First Nation notion of the Circle as “we should all be eating from a common bowl.” The circle to many First Nation people means what you send out will come back to you. If you send out hatred and anger that is what will come back to you; if you send out kindness and love, that is what will come back to you. This chapter sums up Canada’s reality and attitude towards those living in Canada. Ralston Saul shares how fairness is what most Canadians want; however, he claims that in the history of Canada “the colonial mindset is always easy to identify…because it attacks fairness and inclusion as soft and romantic notions.”

First Nation people in Canada live with the truth and are disadvantaged as a result of this old colonial mindset that still exists. As Ralston Saul also argues, “I can’t think of a more romantic notion than to believe that a stable society can be built on the celebration of disadvantage.” Canada’s circle will not be complete until it includes all people, so one hopes that this book will help to change the colonial mindset in Canada.

Ralston Saul’s deeper argument illustrates how Canadians have been influenced by “aboriginal” people. This notion alone brings so much to mind: only a generation ago, working in the public education sector as an aboriginal support teacher I was told by aboriginal parents to stay away from their children. Many obvious aboriginal students would avoid me and give me the look that said please do not talk to me. I understood their feelings simply because I learned in school that it was not a good thing to be an Indian and I grew up ashamed and confused until I studied the history of the colonial mindset that was imposed on First Nations people. It was this that stripped them of their dignity, displacing them from their own peoples and traditions.

My concern as an educator is how many Canadians know this history. More importantly, how many of those with decision making powers know this history? I appreciate the recognition in A Fair Country that aboriginal people have influenced what is known as Canada today from our early contact with the first explorers and settlers through to the government system. This acknowledgement and information will help to inform Canada’s elite and those in decision making positions to make better, more informed decisions.

I would like to end this review in my traditional Halqemeylem First Nation language by saying to Ralston Saul, “Kwas Hoy, tset tsel ey tey Yoyes”: “Thank you, for your very good work”. It is not always easy to share or speak the truth and it is not always welcomed. It is not what is said but how it is said. Ralston Saul takes the truth(s) about Canada and shares them in way that will promote “growth” for those willing to work towards a Canada for all Canadians.

Gwen Point is Stó:lo First Nation and teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley.