Are we all Métis peoples of Canada now?

Oct 19th, 2008 | By | Category: Heritage Now

Just for the record, the former Governor General’s consort, John Ralston Saul, is not one of my favourite authors. And I haven’t exactly read his new book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada. But I have bumped into a few of its key messages in the mass media. The other night I saw him discussing the book on TV. And one of this weekend’s newspapers had two articles on the subject. He has now reached me to the point where I feel the urge to speak myself.

So …  I think Mr. Saul carries some arguments too far in A Fair Country. And there seem more than a few ways in which he’s telling stories about history that are not historically accurate. But I also think he is pointing to something real about Canada’s past that is quite profound and deeply interesting for the present (and the future). And it has been largely ignored for far too long. He is not alone. He is focusing on aboriginal and multiracial themes in modern Canadian history, that have already been duly noted by the likes of Harold Innis (1930), Jennifer Brown (1980), Sylvia Van Kirk (1980), Bruce Trigger (1986), Richard White (1991), and Brian Slattery (1996). But Mr. Saul is raising important issues and he might attract wider attention – at a time that is almost begging for fresh debate on what Canada is supposed to be all about.

Harold Innis’s Canadian longue dure

John Ralston Saul’s recent talk with Steve Paikin, on the TV Ontario show The Agenda, alluded to what strikes me as the broadest and most historically apt and deeply interesting argument in his new book.

Modern Canadian history in fact goes back for some considerable length of time. But we have tended to take only, at most, the last 200 or so years of it altogether seriously. This is a great mistake, because in some ways it is the earlier parts of the Canadian past that have the most relevance for the Canadian future today.

In his preface to the justly much admired first volume of The Historical Atlas of Canada: From the Beginnings to 1800 (first published in 1987), the University of British Columbia geographer Cole Harris noted that the work of the book’s contributors had “tended to confirm Harold Innis’s general insights … As Innis maintained, the pattern of Canada has been taking shape for almost 500 years.”

The book in which Innis (who became the first Canadian-born head of the department of political economy at the University of Toronto in 1937) first advanced this view was The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. Though first published as long ago as 1930, it remains probably the single best and most interesting book on the Canadian past, and it is still in print.

In Innis’s view the trade by which various aboriginal peoples of Canada exchanged (especially beaver) furs from the North American wilderness for such early European manufactured goods as metal pots and cooking utensils and cloth (and yes, in some cases, alas, guns and ammunition and alcoholic beverages too) was the first Canadian resource economy. It began in the early 16th century and reached its greatest height in the early 19th century.

The fur trade in “northern North America” (where a cold climate made the best furs) started modern Canadian history. And its gradual expansion from the Atlantic to the Arctic to the Pacific oceans created modern Canada. Or, as Innis somewhat poetically put the point, the Northwest Company – the purest institutional expression of the Canadian fur trade in its ultimate golden age, 17841821 – “was the forerunner of the present confederation” which began in 1867.

Moreover, from its beginnings the fur trade in Canada was a multiracial Indian-European collaboration. Necessarily and inevitably, “contact of Europeans with the Indians was essential to the development of the fur trade.” And: “The Northwest Company was the forerunner of confederation and it was built on the work of the French voyageur, the contributions of the Indian, especially the canoe, Indian corn, and pemmican, and the organizing ability of Anglo-American merchants.”

And, again, in one of the great ringing 1930 conclusions to Harold Innis’s Fur Trade in Canada: “The lords of the lakes and forest have passed away’ but their work will endure … We have not yet realized that the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”

John Ralston Saul’s “We are a Mtis civilization”

Part of what John Ralston Saul finally seems to me to be doing in his new book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, is just restating for the early 21st century Harold Innis’s pioneering insight of 1930, that “the Indian and his culture were fundamental to the growth of Canadian institutions.”

At the same time, Saul is stressing a side to all this that Innis only alluded to briefly. In language that no one would use today, Innis in 1930, having noted that the importance of Indians in the fur trade in Canada has no exact parallel in the United States, went on: “The existence of small and isolated sections of French half-breeds throughout Canada is another interesting survival … The half-breed has never assumed such importance in the United States.”

The importance of “Mtis” or mixed-race Indian and European (and not just French) peoples in the Canadian fur trade of the 17th, 18th, and earlier 19th centuries was pursued in much greater depth a half century after Innis’s Fur Trade in Canada was first published. In 1980 Sylvia Van Kirk published Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870. Jennifer S.H. Brown’s Strangers in Blood: Fur Trade Company Families in Indian Country appeared the same year.

A somewhat related interesting article in the October 18, 2008 National Post by Stephen Marche, on both John Ralton Saul’s new book and a new biography of Samuel de Champlain by David Hacket Fisher, is headlined “We are a Metis civilization.”

Mr. Marche goes on: “Rather than simply seeing the country as the product of successive waves of conquest and immigration, Saul and Fischer focus on the initial amicable contact between the French and native communities, and find in that moment of co-operation the fount of all that is Canadian.” Saul in particular “wants us to be more aboriginal in our culture, or, in his terms, to recognize our aboriginal nature more fully … He says that aboriginal culture … has at its core harmony achieved through balanced relationships.'”

Marche has problems with what he sees as the sloppy way in which John Ralston Saul expresses his ideas about Canadian aboriginal culture. And he complains that “the farthest he gets into a program of what we should do is to propose founding a university in the North and stressing the importance of oral culture at our universities.”

Still, Marche tells us: “And yet I find the basic idea in A Fair Country highly attractive, no matter how poorly expressed. The idea of Canada as a Metis country, a country that kept intact structures of thought taken from aboriginal culture, is powerful because it explains so much about who we are now, why we’re not like settler societies in the United States or Australia or South Africa. It explains the depth of commitment to single-tier health care and open immigration and diplomacy.”

(I should say myself that I don’t quite see, e.g., how the “idea of Canada as a Metis country … explains the depth of commitment to single-tier health care” in the country today. But I do think the idea more generally does give us an angle of vision on the Canadian past that has fresh relevance for our increasingly diverse social and cultural body politic in the early 21st century. And it does seem intriguingly true enough that the Canadian fur trade in its early 19th century golden age involved a highly diverse and multiracial society of not just Indians and Europeans – but people of African and Asian descent too.)

Robert Fulford’s critique of A Fair Country

Right beside Stephen Marche’s “We are a Metis civilization” article in the print edition of the October 18, 2008 National Post is a more critical article by Robert Fulford, called “Ralston Saul’s imagined country.”

Fulford writes that Saul “wants to transform our most fundamental ideas about the way Canada has developed. He believes we should see ourselves as a metis civilization,’ dominated by beliefs absorbed from our aboriginal experience. We wrongly assume that our national life springs from Judeo-Christian morality, Greek democracy, British government, French as well as British law, etc. But that assumption is misguided. Saul insists that the underlying currents of Canada are indigenous. Unconsciously perhaps, we organize our thinking around aboriginal concepts of peace and fairness.”

Fulford goes on to say that this is “an appealing idea. Many of us would like to imagine that Canadians have a unique way of life.” But: “Unfortunately, Saul doesn’t begin to make a case for this notion. His history is shaky, his examples questionable, his self-confidence unwarranted.”

I find that I certainly have some reservations about what Mr. Saul is trying to do myself. His emphasis on “aboriginal concepts of peace and fairness” seems to me to excessively idealize what we really know about our aboriginal history, from the 16th century onwards. (And we know much more now than we used to – as the writings of the late dean of Canadian historical anthropology and archaeology, Bruce Trigger make clear. Or the very interesting book of 1991 by the American historian Richard White: The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.)

Robert Fulford makes a telling enough point as well, it seems to me, when he complains that Saul “has great difficulty showing us how aboriginal attitudes affect public life in modern Canada … According to Saul, Lester B. Pearson won his Nobel peace prize by following the aboriginal principle that you must understand the other party and meet him half-way.”

Fulford carries on: “In other words,’ Saul continues, Pearson was following classic First Nations negotiations strategy.’ Did Pearson know that? Almost certainly not,’ Saul acknowledges. Still, that’s the way Saul sees it. We could just as validly say Pearson used the same approach Europeans and others have used for centuries when solving disputes. By 1956, Pearson had spent two decades learning from old hands on the diplomatic circuit. For evidence that he reflected the aboriginal tradition we have only Saul’s intuition.”

At the same time, I am much less convinced by Fulford’s complaint that Saul “makes a great deal of the many marriages of Indians and Europeans, beginning in the 17th century. This history apparently has made us much more tolerant, so that (Saul says) we Canadians are now untroubled by intermarriage between different ethnic or religious groups.”

Here again, Fulford urges that John Ralston Saul’s “conclusions rely mainly on his imagination.” Yet this seems to ignore (as Saul himself may, for all I know) all the evidence collected so carefully by the quite serious and credentialed historians Sylvia Van Kirk and Jennifer Brown in their two books of 1980 – to say nothing of the entire history of what Canada’s Constitution Act 1982 calls the “Mtis peoples of Canada.” (Or the history of the mystical Mtis leader Louis Riel, and his role in the Red River and North West rebellions in later 19th century Canada.) All this may not be quite to the point that either Saul or Fulford is trying to make. But as Innis put it more than 75 years ago now: “The existence of small and isolated sections of French half-breeds throughout Canada is another interesting survival” of the first modern Canadian resource economy. And: “The half-breed has never assumed such importance in the United States.”

Haroon Siddiqui summarizes what really does make sense …

There have been other enthusiastic and critical reviews of John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada over the past few months. (For complete documentation on all but the most recent items in the October 18 National Post consult Mr. Saul’s own website – and by the time you read this even the Post articles may be included, and other things beyond.)

As I have been quickly and rather casually trying to figure out just what I think myself for the moment (at some point, no doubt, I should actually read the book itself), the most helpful items I’ve found have been two articles by Haroon Siddiqui of the Toronto Star, on September 21 and 25, 2008. I think it’s worth quoting in full the last four paragraphs from the first of these articles, headlined “Unfulfilled nation torn from its aboriginal roots.” In these paragraphs Siddiqui is summarizing the main thrust of Saul’s argument:

“It is the aboriginal ideas of harmony, balanced relationships, an inclusive circle, and an appropriate equilibrium between peoples and the land that explain Canada’s invention of peacekeeping, the pioneering environmental efforts of Greenpeace, Maurice strong and David Suzuki, and multiculturalism.

“Yet we have trained ourselves not to see the aboriginal nature of Canadian society … Our single greatest failure has been our inability to normalize – that is, to internalize consciously – the First Nations as the senior founding pillar of our civilization.’

“If we did, we would first see the native as a normal person in his or her own right,’ settle land claims and help stabilize aboriginal communities and, second, come to terms with our identity, develop enough self-confidence to eviscerate our colonial mentality’ and get on with life.’

“This would also give us the strength to transform our ruling elites,’ who remain hobbled by a colonial insecurity, an inferiority complex. They remain fixated with the Empire – London-Paris in the old days, Washington today. They believe that Canada is too insignificant a player in the world to decide its own fate. But it is not.”

Mr. Siddiqui apparently approves of what Mr. Saul is trying to say here, and I think that can be counted as an achievement for Mr. Saul in its own right. There is, I think, something about the message that I approve of myself – though I would also hasten to add that other parts of it do strike me too as even absurdly overblown.

I don’t think it makes much sense, e.g., to talk about we mere 33,311,389 people in Canada today as a “civilization.” If you do want to talk this way, in Canada we are part of what might be called North American civilization – which nowadays includes Mexico and the Caribbean as well as the United States. And while it is no doubt true enough that historically the Mtis peoples of Canada have been more important than parallel groups in the United States, Mestizos have been much more important in Mexico than in either Canada or the United States. And of course as I write a very interesting mixed-race person (though not someone with any known aboriginal ancestry) is running for the office of President of the United States.

Similarly, the notion that “aboriginal ideas of harmony, balanced relationships, an inclusive circle, and an appropriate equilibrium between peoples and the land  … explain Canada’s invention of peacekeeping” strikes me as overblown at best on a number of grounds. (Just to start with, e.g., did we really invent peacekeeping?)

Yet it also does seem to me that if someone with a great deal of patience would sit down and more carefully re-phrase much of John Ralston Saul’s new book, it would be possible to come up with something rather sensible, that is also forward-looking, pioneering, and a highly useful contribution to current Canadian public debate.

Again, not having actually yet read the book myself, I am guessing that this re-phrased version of Mr. Saul’s text would in some places sound a lot like certain concluding passages from a 1996 article written by Brian Slattery of the Osgoode Hall Law School, and entitled “The Organic Constitution: Aboriginal Peoples and the Evolution of Canada.” In this article Professor Slattery proposed what he called the “Organic Model” of Canadian constitutional development, as a replacement for the old and now obsolete “Imperial Model.” And his article ended with:

“Thus, the Organic Model encourages us to broaden our conception of the sources of Canadian law and to recognize the diverse roles that Indian, Inuit, and Mtis peoples have played in the formation of this country and its Constitution. It suggests that Aboriginal peoples should be viewed as active participants in generating the basic norms that govern us-not as people on the fringes … More generally, the Organic Model opens up the Constitution to a variety of perspectives that have long been excluded or assigned to the periphery of our collective life. The Model represents a further stage in the long process of decolonization that Canada has undergone since 1867.”

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