Pre-eminent Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul has written on almost every topic, from the nature of ethics to the dangers of modern reason. He’s even been dubbed by TIME magazine a “prophet.”
Nonetheless, the 67-year-old essayist waited nearly two years after the explosion of the Idle No More movement to release his book on the Indigenous rights movement, and what he sees as its major impact on the future of Canada.
“I was very silent because I felt it was a really fabulous moment to sit and listen to people we’re not used to hearing,” he told Windspeaker; “this whole range of new voices, a new generation really of Aboriginal leaders who are not established.
“Afterwards, it seemed to me there was something that needed to be done by someone like me—a non-Aboriginal person—to write what is almost a pamphlet to non-Aboriginal Canadians saying that what has just happened with Idle No More is not over. It was an explosion.”
Idle No More burst onto the national scene during the Winter Solstice in December 2012, and quickly spread to almost every corner of Canada and even further abroad.
The Indigenous rights movement sparked hundreds of protests, ceremonies and events—including Cree round dances that drew thousands from all backgrounds into the middle major urban intersections, the reclamation of traditional Salish names for mountains and sacred landmarks on Vancouver Island, and even a full-scale powwow grand entry procession replete with regalia and ceremony in the mammoth West Edmonton Mall only paces from a replica of one of Columbus’ colonial ships.
Saul—celebrated author of
The Doubter’s Companion, The Unconscious Civilization and A Fair Country—traces Idle No More’s roots back beyond its immediate sparks of outrage at the passing of federal Conservative omnibus budget bills that gutted waterway and environmental assessment laws.
He looks earlier through centuries of history tracing back to first contact, the Royal Proclamation of 1763, through to the assimilationist 1968 White Paper and a sweeping royal commission nearly three decades later.
The Idle No More movement was at first ignored by national media outlets. When they were forced to listen, the media quickly got distracted into sanctimonious scrutiny of hunger striking Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, reserve finances, and debate over the leadership of the Assembly of First Nations.
“When it ended, a lot of people said, ‘Well, that’s over now,’” Saul recalled. “But it isn’t over, actually. It’s really a sign of what’s to come … an amazing growth in terms of power and influence.”
Take, for example, the enduring power arising from the Tsilhqot’in nation’s ground-breaking land rights victory at the Supreme Court of Canada. Or the vow of B.C., Ontario and midwest U.S. First Nations to block the passing of oil sands pipelines from Alberta through their traditional territories.
Idle No More and its accompanying eruption of Indigenous activism—particularly among a new generation of young and emerging Métis, Inuit and First Nations leaders—was not about merely one crisis or injustice, Saul argued, but about the breadth of history.
“In fact, what we’re talking about is a question of rights, restitution, reconciliation,” Saul said in a telephone interview. “Which means real work.”
That “real work” is the main responsibility of non-Aboriginal Canadians, Saul argued: forcing Indigenous rights to the forefront of politics, “to push the Aboriginal reality to the top of the political pile,” he said. “This is the issue of the day.”
That doesn’t mean non-Aboriginals should sympathize with Indigenous peoples, however. Saul sees sympathy as merely a well-intentioned symptom of colonialism, one that leads not to solutions but to stagnation— “a dead end.”
Instead, he wants to see deep changes. That means forcing the system to accomplish “things that have to be done in terms of spending, education, finishing up treaty negotiations, et cetera, instead of dragging things out,” he said. “While we’re feeling sympathy, the Department of Indian Affairs is continuing to drag out treaty negotiations, and problems of poverty and amounts of spending on Aboriginal education continue to be below national averages.”
The problem as Saul see it is that every crisis that emerges in the national news—whether substandard housing extremes on Attawapiskat nation because of a nearby De Beers diamond mine’s sewage flooding, or devastatingly high suicide rates, or 1,200 missing and murdered women—is dealt with on a “one-off catastrophe basis.”
What needs to happen, instead, is a fundamentally different Canadian response that acknowledges our “national disgrace” and makes a plan for action, “a program [to] get this thing done.”
The cover of Saul’s new book The Comeback is not graced with vivid photos or abstract motifs, but rather words in stark black and red that expound its thesis: “For the last hundred years, Aboriginal Peoples have been making a comeback—a remarkable point of population, of legal respect, of civilizational stability,” it reads. “A comeback to a position of power, influence and civilizational creativity.”
That shift is of historic proportions and will continue to impact the country for centuries to come, he believes.
“This comeback from a low point around 1900 is astonishing,” he argued. “It’s going to continue—it’s not going away.
“If you’re a younger person today, this is your generation’s responsibility to fix what other people have not dealt with … Don’t let the political-bureaucratic system get in the way of it.”
But a full third of Saul’s nearly 300-page book is not his own words but the words of just a few of the emerging Indigenous voices and leaders who increased in prominence because of Idle No More. Many of them have graced the pages of Windspeaker — from Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred to Inuk international leader Siila Watt-Cloutier to Anishinabe broadcaster and rapper Wab Kinew, who was this fall named the temporary host of CBC Radio’s arts and culture flagship show, Q.
Idle No More was about more than leaders. Or more precisely, it was about a multitude of them. Instead, it was a true grassroots explosion, or as Saul noted near the end of
The Comeback, “Idle No More was a moment—a large moment—that seemed to catch most people by surprise,” he wrote. “Why? Because the moment was real… Here was a moment unfolding over several months that was not planned, was not top down.”
Out of the Idle No More experience, he said, “came a whole new structure” of how Aboriginal people could quickly mobilize large numbers of grassroots people.
“What used to be impossible to organize could now be organized in 48 hours,” he said. “There was a new leadership structure there and it’s looking for ways to grab hold of issues and move.”