April 22, 2010

theology in a fair country

A poster advertising a public lecture by John Ralston Saul caught my eye the other day. Turns out he's speaking as part of a conference on "doing theology in a changed relationship with Aboriginal People in Canada" that is being put on by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Winnipeg in association with the CCTE (Churches Council on Theological Education in Canada). I don't much care for Saul's work, but I wrote a brief review of his latest book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, last year and I'm very interested in whether it is possible to speak of post-colonial theology, so if I can I hope to attend his lecture. Below is the better part of my review, which should at least provide some explanation for his presence at this conference.

“We are a people of Aboriginal inspiration organized around a concept of peace, fairness and good government. That is what lies at the heart of our story; at the heart of Canadian mythology, whether Francophone or Anglophone.” So concludes the prologue to A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, the thirteenth book by political philosopher and novelist John Ralston Saul. Undoubtedly one of Canada’s most esteemed public intellectuals, Saul’s has produced timely essay on the complexities of our national identity and a reality-check for a country notoriously at odds with itself.

As Saul demonstrates, our future as Canadians depends on a thorough engagement with this nation’s past. We are a uniquely diverse and egalitarian nation, not because of our bi-national ancestry, but rather, because we are a Metis nation, Saul argues. When Europeans began to settle this land, their survival was dependent on Aboriginal people, whose way of life contrasted European ideas of conquest because it grew out of a sophisticated process of adaptation to the environment. In other words, European settlers were enveloped by a new narrative when they set foot on this land. While the most adhered to enlightenment paradigms like progress, rationality, and human mastery over nature, aboriginal culture privileged complexity over singularity and negotiation over violence, lived in continuity with nature and socially practiced what he calls the inclusive circle. This means that the qualities often used to describe or define “Canada” are, in fact, profoundly aboriginal. Our country’s resistance to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of aboriginal culture and philosophy, argues Saul, is precisely what holds Canada back from true national awareness and international confidence.

Saul’s writing, though mildly academic, is clear and makes for an easy read, but can quickly become quite repetitious. For those who’ve bumped up against post-colonialism in their studies, A Fair Country fails to offer much that’s new in the way of critique, but it does deal with Canada’s muddled economic policies and the often misguided elites who shape current acts of legislation. Alongside Saul’s national reality-check, we must recognize that colonial violence remains deeply rooted in our imported economic system and methods of governance.

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