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Book Review (in progress): John Ralston Saul’s ‘A Fair Country’

I have been making progress through A Fair Country while killing time in the waiting room of my wife’s OB/GYN. In two visits, I’m now over 1/3 of the way through. If my son continues to loiter, I may have it complete before he’s born.

As with everything of his that I’ve read to date, I am deeply impressed with Saul’s thesis and his execution of same. He defines Canada as a “MĂ©tis civilization” and identifies the long-denied yet deeply pervasive influence of Native thought at the “third pillar” of Canada. Saul spends the first section of A Fair Country (which is what I’ve read thus far) elaborating on and providing evidence for this definition, going so far as to state that our much-vaunted tradition of multiculturalism in Canada is not a recent invention in fact an implementation of an originally Native concept of inclusiveness. For these reasons and more, this is a book I wished I’d had while I was still in school, but I’d be afraid of citing due to Saul’s quite explicit and pointed criticism of the academy and formal, logocentric academic methods. (While reading this book and cheering internally, I’ve wondered not a few times whether my own personal love-hate relationship with academia makes me biased in Saul’s favour.)

Saul’s deeply interesting corollary to this main thesis is that we are a country in denial, and this denial is the source of all our pain. He argues that we pretend as if we are a “monolithic nation” (either of English, French, or American imperialist origins), and if we only embraced our original diversity/the Native aspect of ourselves then we would end our perpetual frustration as a country and as a culture. One would think that, as a supporter of the Great Books pedagogy, I would be a target of Saul’s critiques. However, Saul specifically and repeatedly focuses his critiques on modern ideas of English, French, and American nationalism, to such an extent that he defends classical Athens against the modern democracies’ attempts to claim lineage to her. This certainly does not make Saul a critic of modernity, but it seems that he’s sympathetic to my mode of thought — at least to an extent that we have common cause against a common foe. As of my reading to this point, it does not seem to much of a stretch to draw parallels between Saul’s ideas regarding Native communities and politics and those of antiquity that I study. (Specifically, there are interesting similarities between what Saul describes and Mary Nichols’ interpretation of Aristotle in her book Citizens and Statesmen.)

I will post more as I read more.