The capacity to adapt to reality is a sign of intelligence in any civilization. In the Arctic, one of the principal causes of death among the British and U.S. explorers was their refusal to dress, act or eat like savages. From the 1830s on, they deliberately chose to ignore the example and the advice of voyageurs, Metis and Inuit. It was only late in the nineteenth century that they came to terms with their own inferiority and comic or tragic-comic self-absorption. All it took in the end was one naval officer breaking ranks to spend the winter with the Inuit. He came back to the ship in the spring—healthy, happy, well fed—to find the usual collection of sick shipmates and the usual roll call of the dead. The fundamental difference was the refusal of civilized Englishmen to eat raw meat, which contained the necessary vitamins. Unlike the savages, they boiled theirs until everything healthy had been removed. These sort of comic stories need to be told because they highlight how insistent we have remained on seeing our country through the eyes of these explorers rather than through the eyes of those who already lived here. The explorers’ stupidity and incapacity to adapt has been recast in this European interpretation of Canada as a drama, a human tragedy. Not stupidity.In this extended essay, Saul writes a history of resisting acknowledgement of native influence and accomplishment, even as reviewers of the book slowly work along the same lines, wanting to immediately brush aside or negate his arguments instead of dealing with them head on. If he is wrong, then how did it otherwise go? What is the counter argument apart from this simple denial and dismissal? One of the things Saul discussed on Sunday, and further on in his book, is the idea of Arctic sovereignty, refusing the models that have been latched onto, the federal government pushing money into finding the remains of a dead explorer looking for the north-west passage. Why not, instead, argue sovereignty though the fact that Canadians have been living up there for thousands of years, a people who see no difference between water, the ice and the land? For thousands of years, these, as opposed to the “laws of the sea” have been theirs, Saul argued, and should be the argument presented to the world court. I mean, it’s so simple, isn’t it? Delightfully and frustratingly so; why not take the population of the north at their word, instead of, yet again, pushing a model of culture and land on them that isn’t appropriate?
And so Thomas King asks with dark irony: “What is it about us that you don’t like?” The answer is that, like Socrates or the warriors at Thermopylae, you’re supposed to have disappeared so that we can put up some statues, write some poems and get on with our lives as your anointed successors.Saul’s argument is that this country has three founding cultures, not two, and that the country’s foundation has three poles; to weaken even one, is to weaken the country as a whole, and the best thing we can do for ourselves as a people is to strengthen the native population of our country. To bring out the best in them is to help bring out the best in ourselves, yet we manage to repeatedly frustrate the issue, denying it. The War of 1812 was won through the help of the native population, as was the battles during the Fenian Raids, and native Canadians made up great groups of soldiers during the first and second world wars, fighting skirmishes as Canadians even up to today. Why, Saul argues, do we insist on keeping them secondary?
The added element was that Tecumseh had had the good grace to die in battle in the War of 1812 in defense of what could be seen as the Canadian ideal. He had tried to hold what would become part of Canada’s border. He had been betrayed and abandoned by the British Army. From the point of view of nineteenth-century Canadian nationalism, it was a superbly noble death—a reminder that you can’t become someone’s Athenian unless you die and do it with grandeur.It’s strange how an idea simply takes over, despite whatever evidence to the contrary. One of my favourite examples is how there are no physical descriptions of angels in any of the books of the Bible as human shaped beings with wings, yet this is how we have decided they have looked, and there have even been those to insist on this an other examples as Biblical “fact,” somehow completely unsupported by the text they insist upon. As Saul talks about how English and French literatures are separately taught in universities, as though they haven’t ever influenced each other, how can we conceive of native influence, if we can’t even acknowledge the cross-influences between our other two founding languages?
But there is almost no formal discussion of the implication of such influence. Our universities—anglophone and francophone—are largely constructed as pale imitations of European models led by language. And so ideas—to say nothing of literature and history—are separated out by language, as if that were the ultimate statement of meaning, as if an Algerian novel had more to say to a francophone or a Sri Lankan novel had more to say to an Anglophone just because it was written in their language, even if the experiences and influences are completely different. […] If we have difficulty accepting the profound meaning of this English-French crossover, it is even less surprising that we don’t deal with the Aboriginal influence on both. And yet, if we accept the idea that our civilization has been built upon three pillars and so has a triangular foundation, that must mean something. And the central meaning must be the effect on our thinking.Saul doesn’t just rely on history, but brings it up to the skirmishes and foolishnesses of today, reminding non-aboriginals that every blocked highway, even in the words of those doing such, have been a last resort, after conversation fails, and is seen as a failure on the part of those blocking. This is an important and even essential book, and he has easily convinced me of Canada being a Metis nation (but where do we go now, becomes the next question). Anyone interested in history, where we are now and where we must go, has to read this book.