Friday, October 30, 2009

John Raulston Saul

Canada is a Metis nation, says John Raulston Saul.

He makes the startling claim in his book A Fair Country (Viking, 2008). It was also a thesis prominent in a lecture Saul gave this past Wednesday (Oct. 28, 2009) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he gave the 17th annual McCready Lecture, which I attended.

The lecture was ostensibly about visual art and architecture ... Canadian style. Saul structured it around a slide show of scenes and art from the new Frank Gehry-designed AGO.

It was the first time I had been to the new gallery since it re-opened late last year. It was, as all reports had promised, spectacular. And Saul began the lecture saying as much. And saying that everyone had said as much.

But, he said, he didn't think that people had really understood why it was so spectacular. Then he outlined his thesis.

It was because, he said, Frank Gehry, who had grown up around the corner from the Dundas Street gallery in downtown Toronto, had absorbed into his subconscious the culture of the orginal inhabitants of Canada, the Aboriginals, the First Nations, the Indians.

Just look at the staircases. They serpentine, Saul said. Snake-like. And we all know what snakes represent, don't we? They represent evil -- and knowledge. The Adam and Eve story says so. Except these staircases aren't evil, so they come from a different cultural tradition. One that sees snakes as benign. As welcoming and integrated with our human experience.

Saul went on to say that the Group of Seven aren't post-impressionists. They shouldn't be viewed as a failed extension of a dying European tradition. The Group of Seven are "all about movement," just like Gehry's snake staircases ... and the Aboriginal cultural tradition.

European "rational" art, Saul said, is about statis. Standing outside of nature. Rousseau's view of nature was going out into his ordered garden and viewing the moutain in the distance. Tom Thompson in Algonguin Park was trying to get in touch with a different tradition, a different reality. Not nature as something apart.

Saul showed an image of a sewn Iroquois pouch, depicting a "lake panther," a cat that lived in the water and stirred up storms with his tail. This is the creature, and the stormy water, that was stirring Thompson's imagination, Saul said.

He showed various slides of the art currently in the gallery, art from various Aboriginal communities, Canadian artists (hey, Emily Carr's paintings look a lot like Haida totem poles), and European traditions.

Then he came to Henry Moore. Now, anyone my age (41) who grew up in Toronto remembers going to the gallery and seeing the Henry Moore statues. First of all, there's a big one on the corner outside the gallery. There's also "The Archer" outside City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.

Moore, we were told, was a great artist. A world-renowned symbol of Toronto-born success.

And he is all these things, Saul said. But in the old days one walked into the Moore gallery pretty much directly after entering (or so it seems in the foggy morass of my memory). One came upon Moore through the context of the Western tradition, said Saul.

Now the only way to get to the Moore gallery is after passing through the First Nations exhibits. One sees Moore as the culmination of an entirely different tradition.

Like Picasso, Saul said, Moore was trying to break the Western Tradition and take it new places. He was trying escape the Western Tradition ... and he did it (as much as he could) by reconnecting to the natural tradition of this land.

We are Metis nation, said Saul. He owe our true identity to our shared heritage with this country's Aboriginal people.

How do you like them apples?

Saul didn't address the fact that the "Metis" are included in the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes:

35. (1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
(2) In this Act, "aboriginal peoples of Canada" includes the Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples of Canada.

Which means, if we're all Metis, we all have "Aboriginal rights."

I'd be interested to know if Saul addresses this thorny question in his book.

In the meantime, I report that it was a provocative lecture. The audience listened keenly and responded warmly. The questions were respectful, perhaps too much so.

When Saul was asked how people had responded to his book, he said that he'd expected the Aboriginal community to be silent and the non-Aboriginal community to be outraged. Neither happened. (How he expected the Metis to react, he didn't say.)

Saul said that the book had been warmly treated by many Aboriginal leaders, and that the two most common responses to the book were:

  • "I've always thought that, but didn't know how to say it"
  • "I've never thought that, but I think you're right"

Saul said he thought that the country was held back by a lack of language to articulate its dept to the Aboriginal traditions which are part of our broad collective unconscious.

I confess that the slide show as interesting and compelling. I also confess that I agree that the country needs better words to admit its debt to the many diverse Aboriginal cultures that have grown, struggles, sustained themselves, died, revived and evolved as Canada has slid from colony to Empire to nation state to near dissolution to post-modern whatever we are now.

Somewhere out there Crow is laughing.

If you are Canadian, you need to know what this means.

At the same time, there's something wishy-washy about this thesis, too. I can readily agree, for example, with Saul when he says that Canada only survived its first couple of hundred years because the Aboriginal population helped sustain the Europeans in their midst.

Saul said, for example, that Canada's official military policy before about 1820 was based on the assumption that the country could not be held, because there were just too many damned Indians. Without First Nations military allies, Britain would have lost Canada to the United States in the War of 1812, for example.

Earlier, the Iroquois were rewarded with the Halidmand Tract for staying loyal to the Crown after the American Revolution of 1776. The Tract has more recently been in the news as the source of controversy in Caledonia.

This earlier graditude and dependency of the Europeans towards the First Nations, of course, gave way to policies of cultural eradication, Victorianism, and general stupidity. Which only in the past couple of decades have we begun to work ourselves out of.

Saul showed a painting of William (or was it Robert?) Baldwin, whose 18th house abuts the AGO, and who represented the European Tradition in 19th century Toronto. It was a painting of a Victorian gentleman in fine clothes in a fine chair. Saul said the painting was saying, "I'm not here." I'm not sure where I am, but I'm most certainly not in Algonquin Park. I'm not in nature, not part of nature; I am apart, away. In London, likely. I am there in my mind, if nowhere else.

This is a painting about the Family Compact, Saul said. The cultural elite that has never really left Toronto, though the new AGO is a sharp stab in its heart.

Toronto is like a little Belfast, Saul said. Strict, straight, plain. Presbyterian.

At this point, my interest was starting to wane. Saul, while an innovative thinker, was showing his age. My high school had 75 ethnic communities represented. That was more than 20 years ago.

Still, Saul had a point when he said the Family Compact lost political power, but maintained its cultural control. It packed the universities with its presidents and chancellors. It controlled the dominant strains of thought. It sought to align Canada with the European traditions. It didn't give a rats ass about Aboriginal cultural traditions or developing a unique made in Canada philosophy.

The made in Canada philosophy basket is where Saul has placed all of his eggs. He's been critiqueing European rationality his whole career, from Volataire's Bastards (1992) on, but A Fair Country has pushed his far more into the open, in the new, than he has ever been before.

"We are a Metis nation" is an unsustainable conclusion, in my opinion, but the basic structure behind that thought is sound. The Aboriginal cultural tradition ought to be ground into all of us. It ought to be alive in all of us.

If Saul is right, maybe it already is. It's just waiting to be given words.


Finn Harvor said...

"European "rational" art, Saul said, is about statis. Standing outside of nature. Rousseau's view of nature was going out into his ordered garden and viewing the moutain in the distance. Tom Thompson in Algonguin Park was trying to get in touch with a different tradition, a different reality. Not nature as something apart."

FWIW, I strongly agree that it's true this is what Thompson was trying to do, and furthermore I'd add that Thompson was a genius of the first rank (consider how beautifully he painted different temperatures of snow; I've seen few artists do the same). But why accept that the Europeans were as fusty and uptight as suggested in this passage? This part of the argument is straw man.

Michael Bryson said...

Agreed. Just reporting what Saul said - and the tone in which he said it. He went on to say that the Impressionists view of nature was "going to the park."

He also contrasted criticism of the Group of Seven ("no people in the paintings") with Great Art like "Water Lilies" (no people there either).

Should add, though, that he repeatedly acknowledged the "greatness" of the European masters. Just that what they were doing (and what the Group of Seven were doing) has been previously misunderstood and misrepresented.

Interesting argument.

John Ralston Saul said...

Dear Michael Bryson,

Apparently what follows is too long for the format, so I am posting it in two parts.

John Ralston Saul

I very much enjoyed your analysis of my McCready Lecture at the AGO. It was fun and interesting, and filled with good questions. So thank you very much for that.

There were just a few things perhaps worth mentioning.

First you mention that I categorized European “rational” art as being about “statis.” I’m guessing that that’s a typo and that you meant stasis. But stasis is a lot stronger concept than I would use. I am not attacking European art. I am comparing Euro/US art with Canadian. I believe I talked about a Euro/US obsession with the perfection of the image, usually followed, not surprising, by a rebellion intended to break the perfected image. I think the way I put it was that “European art comes out of a sedentary and static tradition” balanced against a constant desire to break out of the static and sedentary.

The Canadian tradition, which has its roots in Aboriginal civilization, which in turn have their roots in a geography that cannot imagine itself static or sedentary, is one of constant movement and uncertainty. You heard my interpretation of Tom Thomson as that of someone trying to get in touch with a different tradition. I would say it was more about trying to break out of the European position of art as observation of place and instead trying to get inside the place.

Re the whole question of whether we are a métis nation or not, you will find in A Fair Country that I very carefully differentiate between the Métis people and the idea of a métis nation. You could say that the Métis people stand as the model for the idea of the métis nation, in which complexity is admired as a strength. The “M” for the former and “m” for the latter is intentional. These are two very different things, and I have been in constant conversation with Métis people across the country before, during, and after writing the book. In other words, the idea of a métis nation has is quite separate from the essential question of Aboriginal rights.

(continued in next comment)

John Ralston Saul said...

Continuation of John Ralston Saul Comment of 4 December 2009:

You also raise the question that while I talk about the reaction of Aboriginal community, I don’t talk about the reaction of the Métis people. But the formal definition of the word “Aboriginal” in Canada includes the First Nations, the Métis, and the Inuit. Further on you talk about my mentioning that Canada’s official military strategy up until approximately 1820 was based on “the assumption that the country could not be held because there were just too many damned Indians.” Actually, that is not at all what I said. And that was not at all the basis of the strategy. The strategy was that Canada could only be held if First Nations and Métis people were willing to defend it in alliance with whatever European group was in place.

A little further on you mention a painting of an English-style gentleman in the AGO, who was the builder and owner of the Grange, as being of William or Robert Baldwin. Actually, both Baldwins were key leaders in the Canadian democratic movement and enemies of the Family Compact. The painting was of Henry William Boulton, a stalwart of the Family Compact.

A bit later you have me describing Toronto as “a little Belfast, strict, straight, plain Presbyterian” and point out that Toronto has since become an exciting multi-ethnic city. You are absolutely right. However, I was not talking about the people of Toronto. I was talking about Toronto architecture, with the exception of a few non-rational buildings like the AGO.

Finally, you conclude that the métis nation idea is unsustainable. In fairness, you might want to have a look at A Fair Country before coming to a conclusion. Frankly, the speech you heard was not about the métis nation argument. I’ve made that argument to thousands of people over the last year. So that was not the argument you heard during the McCready lecture. The argument I was making that night was very precisely the relationship between Canadian images and their roots in Aboriginal civilizations.

Don’t misunderstand these comments. I really did enjoy your report. It is wonderful to see such an in-depth analysis of a speech. In the 19th century and early 20th century much of the shaping of our civilization happened through speeches and comments on them. It was a central part of the public debate, far more important than the wooden declarations by managers we are now inundated with. I’ve often thought it would be a great step forward if we reactivated debates around public talks. And you are doing this. I am grateful to you and look forward to reading your future blogs.

Best wishes,

John Ralston Saul

Michael Bryson said...

Thank you, Mr. Raulston Saul.

What a pleasure to receive such a response!