‘New elite’ to lead in­dige­nous resur­gence

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Michael Dud­ley

HAT is more con­temptible than a civ­i­liza­tion that scorns knowl­edge of it­self?” John Ral­ston Saul’s provoca­tive ques­tion from the open­ing pages of his 1995 book The Un­con­scious Civ­i­liza­tion res­onates in his equally provoca­tive but flawed new book The Come­back, in which Saul por­trays a na­tion de­lib­er­ately scorn­ing self-knowl­edge by treat­ing the as­pi­ra­tions of in­dige­nous peo­ples with ob­struc­tion­ism and ne­glect. Led by a new gen­er­a­tion of aca­demics, artists, lawyers and politi­cians (whom Saul refers to as “a new elite”), in­dige­nous peo­ple are re­claim­ing and re­shap­ing their iden­ti­ties, and with them, that of Canada it­self. How­ever hard Ot­tawa re­sists, ar­gues Saul, the pa­ter­nal­is­tic sta­tus quo that has long dom­i­nated in­dige­nous is­sues will no longer be tol­er­ated: in­dige­nous Cana­di­ans are com­pelling our coun­try to evolve. Re­spond­ing to this is the “great is­sue of our times.” The Come­back con­sists, in equal mea­sure, of Saul’s praise and ad­mi­ra­tion for in­dige­nous Cana­di­ans and his alarmed dis­may at the cor­ro­sive im­pacts of the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s use of om­nibus bills to ram its agenda through Par­lia­ment. Saul’s pow­er­ful man­i­festo is both con­ver­sa­tional and brief, de­liv­ered in 20 rapid-fire chap­ters across 176 pages; the re­main­ing pages com­prise a valu­able and fas­ci­nat­ing com­pi­la­tion of an­no­tated his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary writ­ings — in­clud­ing re­cently pub­lished ar­ti­cles by Win­nipeg’s Wab Kinew and Ni­igaan­wewidam James Sinclair — in­tended to demon­strate the con­sis­tency of in­dige­nous po­lit­i­cal mes­sag­ing across the cen­turies. Saul’s own mes­sag­ing, how­ever, is not with­out short­com­ings. His ex­hor­ta­tions to fel­low non-abo­rig­i­nal read­ers — “we,” “us,” and “you and I” — as­sume non-in­dige­nous read­er­ship; Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple are re­ferred to ex­clu­sively in the third-per­son: “them,” “they,” “theirs” and so on. Kinew and the pro­duc­ers of the CBC se­ries 8th Fire avoided this pit­fall by speak­ing equally to all races. That Saul’s book speaks about, but never to, in­dige­nous Cana­di­ans raises the ques­tion: did Saul ac­tu­ally talk about this project with any of the lead­ers he dubs the “new elite” to gain their in­sights — or to learn if they even wanted to be re­ferred to in this way? It seems un­likely. Ev­ery­thing about The Come­back — its non-de­scrip­tive ti­tle, its voice, its ten­dency to frame events in terms of their re­la­tion­ship to Euro-Cana­dian his­tory and pol­i­tics, rather than their in­dige­nous con­texts — cries out for an abo­rig­i­nal co-au­thor, or at least some quoted in­for­mants. For ex­am­ple, the resur­gence he de­scribes is widely rec­og­nized in in­dige­nous cir­cles as hav­ing been fore­told in the “Sev­enth Fire” prophecy (of­ten in­voked dur­ing the Idle No More demon­stra­tions), re­gard­ing the re­birth and rekin­dling of the Anishi­naabe peo­ple, and the choice we will all face to ei­ther follow the an­cient wis­dom or con­tinue along our present path of de­struc­tion. Fram­ing the book on this prophecy would have greatly en­riched and in­di­g­e­nized his ar­gu­ment.

In­stead, Saul’s ex­clu­sion­ary rhetoric, un­con­scious or no, un­der­mines the book’s oth­er­wise pro­gres­sive and sym­pa­thetic in­ten­tions.

‘WMichael Dud­ley is the in­dige­nous and ur­ban ser­vices li­brar­ian at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg. Mi­ig­wetch to Shan­non Bear for her valu­able in­sights for this

re­view.

The Come­back

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