Book Review: John Ralston Saul’s “The Comeback”

“What is more contemptible than a civilization that scorns knowledge of itself?”

John Ralston Saul’s provocative question from the opening pages of his 1995 book The Unconscious Civilization resonates in his equally provocative but flawed new book The Comeback, in which Saul portrays a nation deliberately scorning self-knowledge by treating the aspirations of indigenous peoples with obstructionism and neglect.

Led by a new generation of academics, artists, lawyers and politicians (whom Saul refers to as “a new elite”), indigenous people are reclaiming and reshaping their identities, and with them, that of Canada itself.

However hard Ottawa resists, argues Saul, the paternalistic status quo that has long dominated indigenous issues will no longer be tolerated: indigenous Canadians are compelling our country to evolve. Responding to this is the “great issue of our times.”

The Comeback consists, in equal measure, of Saul’s praise and admiration for indigenous Canadians and his alarmed dismay at the corrosive impacts of the Conservative government’s use of omnibus bills to ram its agenda through Parliament.

Saul’s powerful manifesto is both conversational and brief, delivered in 20 rapid-fire chapters across 176 pages; the remaining pages comprise a valuable and fascinating compilation of annotated historical and contemporary writings — including recently published articles by Winnipeg’s Wab Kinew and Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair — intended to demonstrate the consistency of indigenous political messaging across the centuries.

Saul’s own messaging, however, is not without shortcomings. His exhortations to [his] readers — “we,” “us,” and “you and I” — assume non-indigenous readership; Aboriginal people are referred to exclusively in the third-person: “them,” “they,” “theirs” and so on.

Kinew and the producers of the CBC series 8th Fire avoided this pitfall by speaking equally to all races. That Saul’s book speaks about, but never to, indigenous Canadians raises the question: did Saul actually talk about this project with any of the leaders he dubs the “new elite” to gain their insights — or to learn if they even wanted to be referred to in this way?

It seems unlikely. Everything about The Comeback — its non-descriptive title, its voice, its tendency to frame events in terms of their relationship to Euro-Canadian history and politics, rather than their indigenous contexts — cries out for an aboriginal co-author, or at least some quoted informants.

For example, the resurgence he describes is widely recognized in indigenous circles as having been foretold in the “Seventh Fire” prophecy (often invoked during the Idle No More demonstrations), regarding the rebirth and rekindling of the Anishinaabe people, and the choice we will all face to either follow the ancient wisdom or continue along our present path of destruction. Framing the book on this prophecy would have greatly enriched and indigenized his argument.

Instead, Saul’s exclusionary rhetoric, unconscious or no, undermines the book’s otherwise progressive and sympathetic intentions.

Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the University of Winnipeg. Miigwetch to Shannon Bear for her valuable insights for this review.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2014 G9

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