John Ralston Saul - Authors - Best Political Books - What We Do - Samara

John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul is an award-winning essayist and novelist and the General Editor of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians project. He was elected President of International PEN in October 2009. (Author photo: Kate Szatmari)

John Ralston Saul took some time to answer our questions in an interview. Here are some written excerpts from that interview as well as an audio clip. 

Describe the genesis of A Fair Country

When I write books, they come out of twenty years or so of work and thinking. I spent the last 25 to 30 years being almost everywhere in the country and talking with people about what works and what doesn't work and what they understand and don't understand. I've talked to literally thousands of communities over the years and to people from every kind of background.

I’m also the General Editor of the Extraordinary Canadians series, which, over the last five years has again made me think about all the sides and shapes of how the country works. And finally spending a lot of time over the last 30 years in the arctic -- in Arctic communities, almost every Arctic community talking with leaders and young people and going back and reading the texts of the 18th and 19th century, talking to a lot of First Nations and just gradually takes shape over the years. Suddenly the moment arrives and out comes a book.

What was the response to A Fair Country?

If I look at all my books, this is one of two or three that has had a very direct response from the population, from citizens, from people and from readers. And they actually stop me all the time in the street and tell me what they think. My book starts out by saying we are a metis people, and almost right away I remember a well known Anglo-Saxon six-foot-four, very white Torontonian came up to me and said, “John, you are absolutely right we are a metis people.”

There was an understanding, even amongst new Canadians, that we could all be in some way small “m” metis, which is very interesting and attractive to young Canadians. Right through the whole of the north of Canada, it makes sense to a lot to people. There has been an astonishing response to the book, and a lot of it comes from the aboriginal community. I was very excited, for example, to hear young First Nations teenagers in northern Canada are reading it. I think that everybody, including those of us who have mainly European background, are very excited by this non-derivative approach to the country. And it’s an idea that puts aboriginal people right at the centre of not only who we were, but who we are, and who we are going to be. 

What do you think of the state of Canadian political writing these days? Are there any trends you admire or disapprove of? What areas should be written about more?

One of the most exciting aspects of new Canadian political writing is the growing number of Aboriginal thinkers who are putting their ideas out in the public place. In many ways, they represent the possibility of a new mainstream of Canadian thought – an uncomfortable, challenging mainstream. E. Richard Atleo’s Tsawalk: A Nuu-chah-nulth Worldview, and Taiaiake Alfred’s Peace, Power, Righteousness: an Indigenous Manifesto, are just two examples. Siila Watt-Cloutier is busy writing her own Northern manifesto. We need to turn away from the established idea of European Victorian influences in order to understand where we could be going.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been the General Editor of the Extraordinary Canadians series for five years, which has been enormous fun and really educational. It's not a series of biographies of prime ministers or of artists; it is really key figures in shaping what the country would become. Sixteen of the country’s leading painters and illustrators have created the covers.

This autumn we are going to start launching 30-minute documentaries on twelve of the books. We’re also doing some public discussions with myself and a few of the authors. We choose a few of the subjects, say Emily Carr and L.M. Montgomery and Nellie McLung; three women in almost the same generation, three of the key feminists. We discuss and debate in front of crowds about the ideas they shared, what they disagreed about, what they did well, and what they did badly and what that tells us. 

Extraordinary Canadians involves literature, painting and designing, high-level documentaries. And now public debate. It’s is an attempt to get beyond this old idea of Canada, this old linear idea of Canada that everything starts with England and France. 

Saul went on to discuss the special nature of immigration and citizenship in Canada.

Citizenship and Immigration by Samara Canada

Here Saul discusses Canada's triangular foundation, which he argues is Francophone, Anglophone and Aboriginal. 

Foundations of Canada by Samara Canada