The title of John Ralston Saul’s newest book, A Fair Country, sounds like a rejected Liberal Party campaign slogan, but its contents are much more combative, provocative, and stimulating than anything likely to be uttered during an election campaign.
The book is divided into four parts, the fourth of which attempts to tie the first three together. However, the individual sections work better as standalone essays. In the first, “A Métis Civilization,” Saul makes a strong (if counterintuitive) case that Canadian culture owes more to its native roots than to the European settlers and their Judeo-Christian belief system. He even says the idea of multiculturalism was alive and well centuries ago among the First Nations, where communities with different languages and traditions co-operated with one another and lived side by side.
In the second essay, Saul argues that if certain lawmakers and thinkers of the time had prevailed, the British North America Act’s famous phrase – “peace, order, and good government” – would have read “peace, fairness, and good government.” That simple switch, Saul contends, affected Canada’s image of itself and, in more concrete terms, created “a growing confusion as to the purpose of the state.” But Saul’s examples of this triumph of form and process over the best interests of the citizenry aren’t entirely persuasive.
Saul is far more convincing – and confrontational – in the third part of the book, “The Castrati,” about how Canada’s elite have failed the country. Saul takes dead aim at business leaders, bureaucrats, and politicians for their general inaction, claiming that their unwillingness to take risks or think independently and creatively is hurting the country.
Over the course of the chapter, Saul eviscerates a litany of elites who have failed the country in one way or another – Ministry of Finance economists and other bureaucrats, Air Canada CEO Robert Milton, convict Conrad Black (“he has only created one thing – one newspaper”), the RCMP, and even Ontario’s teachers for their silence in the face of the BCE sell-off.
In a nation with a more vital public sphere, A Fair Country would, if nothing else, stimulate further discussion about our relationship with our elites and incite more interest in the intellectual underpinnings of the polity. But given the debased state of Canadian public discourse, the closest thing to a public reaction we can likely expect is some snarking in the right-wing press about the irony of Saul, a bestselling author and former resident of Rideau Hall, taking on the elite.