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Reflections of a Siamese Twin

by John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul is a rare bird, a public intellectual, a popularizing philosopher. In this longish book, he uses his substantial skills to analyze the Canadian conundrum. His stage is that of mythological delusions. He attacks them and offers his own. His formidable imagination and ken draw on history, literature, poetry, music, and more. Ralston Saul’s ruminations are wide-ranging and unpredictable: within four pages we are with Emily Carr’s works at a 1927 show, dealing with Toronto’s “world class” pretensions, and in the West, exploring with La Vérendrye in the 1730s. Readers will encounter V.S. Naipaul and Stan Rogers’ haunting song, “Northwest Passage.” Every so often he touches base with Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. George Grant too, but he doesn’t defer to him in the same way. Ralston Saul is clever, full of panache and verve, and is even personal: sharing a conversation on a plane, an “existential moment” at the Montreal pro-unity rally, telling of his father’s hockey team – the Winnipeg Monarchs – and of his own doctoral dissertation on de Gaulle.

The metaphorical title refers to the heroic twins of Ralston Saul’s vision: Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin. He keeps coming back to their handshake of 1842. Ralston Saul’s mythology is that theirs was a humanist pact, that Canada is of Socratic inspiration, the triumph of ideas and creativity over facts, something neither utilitarian nor materialist. He claims we have no centralized monolithic mythology but some regional ones – in Quebec and the West – which he dissects. At points, his dualistic vision of Canada gives way to a mythology of more recent vintage, the new politically correct line that Canada represents a triangular reality of anglophones, francophones, and aboriginals. He’s quite taken with “Métis genius.”

He has some stimulating insights even for readers who don’t agree with them. For example: Canada is un-European and the U.S. more European because it embraced the Old World idea of the monolithic nation-state where we wisely resisted. Here’s another: red toryism is born of Canada’s poverty not its British philosophical legacy. (Take that, Donald Creighton.) I don’t know of a student of Canadian government who would agree that “Canada has never had a strong central government in any sense that could be understood by any other nation-state.” And how many western Canadians would buy the proposition that “francophone Canada is at the core of how anglophones see the country and therefore themselves”?

The bad guys here are our recent political elites, their colonial attitudes and insecurities. They are seduced by advanced corporatism and are mental midgets. The citizenry is never wrong, only ill-served. He has stones to throw at all the living leaders he mentions except Pierre Trudeau. For Ralston Saul, only death appears to redeem leadership.

All in all, this is quite a tour de force.


Reviewer: Nelson Wiseman

Publisher: Viking


Price: $29.99

Page Count: 536 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-670-87099-4

Released: Nov.

Issue Date: 1997-11

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs