Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Comeback with John Ralston Saul

Audience members were rushed in hurriedly, eyeing the best possible seats just before start of the program. Others were fidgeting in their seats i.e., pews, in the majestic sanctuary of Southminster United Church.  In the lobby, tickets were flying away and purchased books exchanged hands with a sense of anticipated urgency.


John Ralston Saul’s fame extends from his Massey Lectures to his executive role as the International President of PEN International, along with a plethora of awards and other distinctions that assure his longevity.  The evening’s opening segment was intiated by a surprised guest that needed no introduction if one is familiar with Aboriginal ceremonies.


The elder initiating the ceremony with smudge smoke was the petite yet tellingly powerful Annie Smith St-Georges, a niece of the legendary Algonquin chief of Willam CamandaElder St-Georges evoked his spirit by addressing the need to aknowledge the ferocious advoacy by Aboriginal youth in the Idle No More movement as well as commemorating Aboriginal ancestors. One could note that Elder St-Georges was cleverly redirecting the lingering Remembrance Day sentiments of the day towards a legacy of men and women of the past whose ghosts may still be haunting us.  But the spiritual prelude set the tone as Saul stepped onto the stage.


And he began.


Commencing by acknowledging the unceded Algonquin land, followed by offering words of gratitute in the form of “Meeguesh” towards Elder St-Georges and finally welcoming the audience in an overly meek posture.  That would be the last resemblance of timidity from Saul, as he would be a resounding tour de force of ideas for the rest of the evening.


He first began with an abridged version of his newly published The Comeback and explained the preamble for its inception. Saul’s talks are passionate a educational narration into the spaces of interdisciplinary subjects from ecology to the humanities, and again referencing everyone from Erasmus to Argentina’s Perón. All that to say, one must be prepared for Saul’s range; it’s truly a treasure.


Alternatively, Saul sought to transform feelings of impotency to a hopeful disposition; working diligently towards working alternatives for both Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals going forward.  The mantra of the evening seemed to be “Learning how to listen,” delivered early in his talk and mentioned repeadily.  Rarely did he look down at his notes, confirming how many years advocating for Aboriginal rights has become a heartfelt calling, occupying as a repository in his mind.


As Saul had alluded during this his keynote, The Comeback was chronicling a remarkable and inevitable resurgence by Aboriginals in Canada for the past century; and more importantly his premise was to place an accent on the awakening of Canadian non-Aboriginals. Saul wasn’t demanding for mere social awareness, his appeal was for his audience members, and readers of his work to consciously engage their minds and join this Aboriginal resurgence. It was less of a militant call to action and more of a compassionate challenge to become renewed allies.


There were the expected shots made at the sitting government but brilliantly erased any sign of partisanship by detailing how previous governments in the last century have either remained numb or actively destructive in their governance of matters affecting Canadian Aborginal affairs.


“. ..Canadians have an impoverished view of ourselves ”, he continued.  Saul cited this as a reason for Canadians' disregard or defensiveness on dealing with Aboriginal issues.


While also taking notes, I couldn’t help but glance onto my Twitter feed to quickly sift through the online conversation. One striking statement issued by Saul was tweeted by Indigenous educator Jaime Koebel:“The most important issue in Canada today is the #IndigenousReality”  


The statement was echoed throughout the evening in different ways and it seemed to be an appropriate manner to conclude his talk and transition towards the last segment of the evening. The audience members were treated to a Q & A session with relevant voices in this resurgence movement, Suzanne Keeptwo, a multi-faceted artist and writer. Also joined by Waubgeshig Rice, a veteran CBC producer.


Keeptwo stated since Idle No More, she’s observed a soft-racism, an attitude of dismissal, and an apathy shown towards the state of Indigenous people whether its the lack of media and governmental attention given to the thousands of missing Aboriginal women or the growing incarceration rate of Aboriginal young men.

Some have hailed Saul as Canada’s national conscience. A title a bit far reaching depending on your ideological leanings and political stripes. Yet for tonight, not only with his words but his presence, he called for a reimagining of ourselves as Canadians, with a better history. A history with renewed solidarity between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Canadians as allies in the stewarding of our nation. For tonight, stewardship, at least for non-Aborignals, began with listening.