One would arguably be hard pressed to find an individual who enjoys challenging the status quo more than celebrated Canadian author John Ralston Saul.
Speaking to those attending the Saskatchewan Association for Community Education, he was right in his element as he somewhat playfully offered his version of revisionist history, while imploring those in the audience to seriously contemplate looking at the time-honoured version of events that have found their way into the public education curricula in this country.
As an avid supporter of First Nations and Métis culture, Saul maximized his time at the podium not only to tout his book, The Comeback, but also to challenge the notion that Canada’s history is based on European values, whereas, as he pointed out, it is owed in large part from the very beginning to the First Nations people and their cultural practices.
Alluding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and the subsequent Calls to Action by Justice Murray Sinclair, Saul said the need for restitution for First Nations peoples is the single most important issue for the country to deal with.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money, and it should,” he offered rather matter-of-factly. He acknowledged the lack of public appetite for such matters as raising taxes, but suggested that “it isn’t a question of leadership on this subject; it’s just not an acceptable position for us to be in as treaty partners.”
According to Saul, education has a major role to play in the years to come, noting that public education is necessary for a civilized democracy to flourish.
In his view, however, “our curricula are still essentially stuck in a time warp of colonial mythology. It is one of the greatest weaknesses in not only the education system but also in society. We are stuck with the wrong narrative.”
As if perhaps anticipating the disquiet that would result if the current learning materials were changed to reflect the views of how it was the First Nations culture that permeated the creation of Canada as it evolved, he said, “it can’t be unpleasant enough when you consider how little we’ve moved on this.
“Our history is still a derivative of the British and French influences and that’s very problematic and it’s out of whack about our reality as a country.”
Saul cited Samuel de Champlain as a poignant example, referring to how it was First Nations chiefs who showed him the way.
“We have to come to terms with how we tell the story and it has to be written in a way that is not what might be considered to be politically correct. It’s what happens when racism is allowed to form the narrative and we need to flip that narrative. Public schools are for the most part doing a fantastic job, but there is an enormous distance to go. However, we have shown we can do this,” he said, drawing attention to the growth of French immersion in the country.
Saul pointed out that having a more accurate depiction of Canada’s history is important not only for First Nations people but also so that the many new Canadians who have recently arrived on these shores have a better idea.
He noted the Syrian refugees specifically, musing as to how these new Canadians can potentially become allies for First Nations people, suggesting that they are very curious about the role First Nations people played in Canada’s history, for example.
Calling some of the lamentable past experiences endured by First Nations people, Saul referred to it as “Canada’s betrayal of Indigenous peoples.”
He paid tribute to the strength and resilience of First Nations people in what he sees as a rightful re-emergence, including the Idle No More movement as a prime example.
“I think we will see in 50 years that this renewed confidence cannot be stopped and we have to be serious about First Nations people taking their rightful place,” he said, wondering aloud how Canada has somehow avoided the fate of many other countries who have endured lengthy civil wars in not dissimilar circumstances.
“Canada continues to have a multiple personality disorder. People talk about the diversity of this country but that means we need to have an inclusive circle of all people and we owe that 100 percent to Aboriginal people and their history. Education is going to be the key as to when this happens, but once we truly start the process we’ll see how much easier it can be.
“The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been fantastic, but it’s going to require a real commitment to put it in place and it’s our job to keep reminding ourselves.”