- The Comeback by John Ralston Saul
Throughout the brief history of this country, indigenous people have worked tirelessly and creatively to move Canadian social systems toward justice and reconciliation. It is just possible that we may be on the precipice of a qualitatively different moment in this long, winding journey together.
The past several years have seen the emergence of Idle No More, a national indigenous-led social movement on a scale not seen before in this country; repeated and pressing calls for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women; and hundreds of thousands of Canadians, indigenous and non-indigenous, participating in events and marches during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Regional movements in resistance to resource development have also emerged across Canada, from the protests over natural gas development in Elsipogtog to those over the proposed Enbridge pipeline route through sixteen First Nations in British Columbia. While indigenous people remain in active and varied states of détente with bureaucratic and political regimes at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels, the Supreme Court of Canada has again affirmed indigenous claims and rights related to land through the Tsilhqot’in Decision in 2014.
Published in the middle of these transformative events, John Ralston Saul’s The Comeback seeks to both historically situate the current moment and build on the work he began in his previous books, Reflections of a Siamese Twin and A Fair Country. Saul, one of Canada’s most able public intellectuals, begins by entreating Canadians to both meditate on and learn their history such that a movement like Idle No More should be neither surprising nor seen as new, given its deep roots.
Saul argues that Idle No More is the most vociferous, creative, and broadly participative of the many and repeated calls from indigenous peoples throughout history to honour the treaties, both in spirit and in scope, that govern their relationship with Canada. The treaties in this [End Page 303] sense are not just historical documents but represent an ethical framework for relations and reconciliation; a bridge for differing knowledge systems, cultures, and histories; and, crucially, agreements for which the “Honour of the Crown” is still at stake. The Honour of the Crown is one of several conceptual frameworks Saul offers, and it serves to differentiate between power and authority, where the Crown is the legitimate expression of the people and the courts a primary conduit for this expression. He compares it to the authority and legitimacy of elders in indigenous communities.
Saul covers enormous terrain beyond historical antecedents, recounting court decisions, criticizing the use of omnibus bills in a deliberative democracy, and identifying challenges with public discourse and debate, noting both the “fluidity of complex traditional systems” and the distinctive argumentation in indigenous traditions. He describes with hopefulness the rise of a new indigenous elite (his list includes several of my friends and my husband) intent on innovative and culturally informed responses to systematic inequities. One might wish to see more female voices from Idle No More, and perhaps the pan-indigenous nature of his argument could be critiqued. But the broader case he is making reflects his task of assessing and excavating Canadian narratives, policies, and systems.
The Comeback is a kind of extended essay, by turns sarcastic and incensed as well as scholarly and explanatory, asking rhetorical questions and making insightful observations about what equality and egalitarianism might actually look like in this country. He doesn’t shy away from identifying the destructive, violent legacy of still-present colonial practices, placing blame and calling out racism and the roots of social Darwinism deep in the origins of Indian Affairs and Canadian governance structures. But he also offers a series of interesting suggestions for how to solve real and pressing problems like the lack of treaties in British Columbia and infrastructure issues in rural, northern, and Arctic communities.
Perhaps what’s most innovative about The Comeback is that Saul doesn’t just feature his own writing. The last eighty-six pages contain a mix of historical and current writing, starting with the 1763 Royal Proclamation, and including powerful statements...