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Are we a Metis Nation?


 

Ever since he burst onto the philosophical scene in 1992 with Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, a somewhat overdramatic look at the evolution of the western mind, John Ralston Saul has been engaged in two quixotic intellectual projects: bashing the Enlightenment and trying to make sense of Canada. The conceit that buckles these two projects together is the notion that the search for the Canadian identity will come to an end only when we come to see that what justifies Canada, the reason Canada makes any sense at all, is that it is an experiment in counter-modernity…

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That’s the opening to my review of John Ralston  Saul’s A Fair Country, in the current issue of the LRC. You should probably subscribe the the Review, but if you don’t they’ve put my review online here.


 
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Are we a Metis Nation?

  1. This is such a great review. Money graf, for my money:

    —-Saul is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he wants to argue that we have systematically denied the legitimate place of Natives in our national narrative and shunted them to the margins of our society and our consciousness. Yet at the same time, he claims that the way our society actually functions and the best parts of our national character are legacies of our aboriginal origins.—-

    I haven’t read the book, but this jives with what first struck me when I heard the title: that the author was using the term “Métis” in simultaneously a metaphorical and a concrete sense and that the two may not have much relation to each other.

    • I’m just reading Charlotte Grey’s biography of Pauline Johnson (“Flint and Feather”), and it’s striking that she identifies the 1860’s and 1870’s as the key period in which we went from treating the Iroquois (at least) as partners under the Union Jack (i.e. fellow anti-Americans) to looking down on them as “the natives.” (The Iroquois, meanwhile, returned the favour.) Grey points out that before this period white settlers and First Nations were all on about the same economic level, i.e. living in wood cabins without subscriptions to Punch. So (having read this review) I’m keen to read Saul’s book to see if he can really sustain the case that we used to be more concretely Métis.

    • “the author was using the term “Métis” in simultaneously a metaphorical and a concrete sense and that the two may not have much relation to each other.”

      BINGO, Jack. That’s exactly right.

    • “simultaneously a metaphorical and a concrete sense and that the two may not have much relation to each other”

      Saul has drained the term “Metis” of all concrete meaning so that he can employ it without fear of contradiction to support all kinds of bogus ideas. It is a common trick of his, and Potter almost, but not quite, calls him on it.

      The key change that occurred in the 1860’s ad 1870’s is the collapse of the fur trade, and the beginning of the surge of modernization that moved across Canada with the railroad. The natives and the Metis were more or less sidelined economically from that moment on. it baffles me that Saul gets any attention for the notion that “the way our society actually functions and the best parts of our national character are legacies of our aboriginal origins”.

      The aboriginals certainly don’t think so!

  2. Well, I may read the review later but your opening is enough to make me walk away for now. His problem is not with the Enlightenment so much as what the modern technocratic mind has made of it. And I believe he understands well what Canada could be but is disappointed with its’ current state. I believe The Doubter”s Companion is his best statement.
    I also believe the man doesn’t get nearly enough respect. But, thankfully, we have the great mind of Tom Flanagan to support us.

    • Joe shared early drafts of Filthy Lucre with me, but I haven’t read the final version yet. It’s dy-no-mite, though. I’m going to try a PotterGold book club here in a few weeks, we’re going to read Filthy Lucre. It’s out this coming Saturday.

      • I’m going to be off the Internets for next few months, but I’ll still read it.

        • “I’m going to be off the Internets for next few months”…

          Is that wise?

          • Wise and good. I’m treeplanting again, busy as a foreman, no time, sketchy connection. Forced perspective. I always enjoy it. It’s always great to come out of the bush and see oh, Britain has a new prime minister, or oh, Hillary endorses Barack as the democratic candidate. Plus a 6 day week really pulls you out of the system.

      • Coming out this Saturday? I already have my copy(which I ordered about five weeks ago) In fact, I checked around at the coles in Saskatoon, and they’ve had since last week.

        • well that’s book publishing for you.

  3. Stopped reading at “Bashing the Enlightenment.”

    Maybe Potter should re-read Voltaire’s Bastards.

  4. Funny: Saul invokes the myth of the egalitarian, inclusive native to support his analysis, even as he decries the tendency to construct romantic portrayals of aboriginal nobility.

  5. Too late Andrew. The book has already been a bestseller.

    • I have no desire to undermine sales of the book. People should buy lots of books, especially ones by soi-disant public philosophers.

  6. Truly Mr. Potter

    If you DID read Voltaire’s Bastards and concluded that Ralston-Saul was “bashing the Enlightenment’, how can I take THIS book review seriously?

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