John Ralston Saul to hit town

By Stephanie Shewchuk

The Lafontaine-Baldwin Symposium began in 2000, named after two Canadian lawyers who came together in 1841 to oppose the British administration’s attempts to assimilate the French Canadian population. Both lawyers were great advocates of responsible government and accordingly the Symposium annually honours Canada’s great political reformers and stimulates debate concerning the future of democracy. Working in collaboration with the Dominion Institute, distinguished author John Ralston Saul oversees the event every year.

Gauntlet: You’ve mentioned in some of your speeches that democracy in general has weakened over the last generation. Obviously this is a problem but is there a solution we can look forward to?

John Ralston Saul: Democracy has been around for thousands of years, in various forms, what makes it work is a very personal engagement by citizens. A very serious engagement where they give up their time, unpaid, in order to be involved in society in a whole variety of ways. What makes democracy work isn’t the number of people who vote, I mean, it’s good to have lots of people vote, obviously, but that’s just a mechanical thing, really. At the end of the day, the really important thing is what happens in between the votes, if people are in fact, involved. And they’re not. In Canada we have reasonable levels of citizen participation and Calgary is historically quite famous for volunteer work, which is a form of citizen involvement, but it doesn’t really relate that much to the political, interestingly enough. So I think that’s really the first issue, is that people have to look at their own involvement in their own democracy and we spend a lot of time grouching about who leads, and very little time trying to affect it in a day to day way.

G: People do tend to see voting as the main avenue they can use to participate in democracy.

JRS: Yes, but historically, people like Napoleon used referenda as a way to maintain authoritarian power because basically they said to citizens, you know, ‘I’m your leader and I’m going to ask you questions and your freedom is that you get to answer them. So the citizen is reduced in that case to a single syllable word, you know, yes or no. It’s really not a very interesting involvement. Elections are fantastic and essential and all the rest of it and I think Canadians are pretty sophisticated about how they vote but the key is not that, the key is involvement and citizenry. And the second thing I think really is the difference between false populism, negative populism, which can end up in votes and citizen participation. Populism is all about people getting mad and people reducing debates to black and white situations. ‘Are you for public health care or are you for private health care’, you know that sort of thing. This makes it very difficult to have a public discussion about are we doing things right. Could we do things another way, are there other ways of doing things, does anybody have any ideas? And one of the signs that we’ve slipped into a much more populist era, and it’s not just in Canada, not just in Alberta, United States, Europe, I mean the Prime Minister of Italy just signed a deal with Mussolini for like one and a half per cent of the vote, for God’s sake. This is clearly a period of rising populism and nationalism.

G: What is your hope for the ideas raised out of the Public Town Hall Discussion, following the lecture?

JRS: What we’ve noticed before is that we do these Town Halls in a very unusual way, with the kind of interaction at one level between 8-12 people at a single table being chaired by somebody and then the whole floor. What’s exciting about it is, by doing it this way, instead of having hundreds of people sitting in a room, basically listening to one person spout off at a microphone, you actually have multiple levels of discussion. And what comes out of that, then when you bring it back to the floor, is often very surprising, you suddenly start hearing what people are thinking, as opposed to what people think they ought to be thinking or what one or two people are thinking. I’ve felt in the past that it’s given some people self-confidence that they actually do have a role to play, that they’re not alone, that there is a role for speaking out publicly in an interesting manner. It doesn’t really favour the egomaniac or the populist. It also links people who are in positions of influence, authority, power, with people who come in off of the street and they have a conversation, which both sides find really interesting. I’ve seen people who really aren’t used to doing this kind of thing because they’re in some sort of administrative or political or power structure and they suddenly realize that this is very exciting. It took about five or six years to develop this form of round table, which is quite unusual.

G: What is the basic composition of the round table groups?

JRS: Very mixed. It just depends on the community, but very mixed. It’s one of the things I’ve always found very exciting. If you can find a way to go into halls in an unstructured way, you’ll get everything. You’ll get students, you know, left, right, whatever, you’ll get business people, you’ll get professionals, people who are working with their hands. I’ve often found, myself, when I’m giving speeches that the most interesting questions come from someone who’s working on an assembly line, well they’ve been thinking about it a lot. They really get an opportunity to speak up. One of the difficulties with this rise of populism that has things in it like the call-in radio shows, the call-in radio shows, you know, have their function and all the rest of it, but the negative side of it, of course, is that it’s very impersonal. You get to call in and basically say your peace but there’s no engagement with other people. It’s more of a release than an engagement. So that’s really part of the old populist tradition, which is not really fundamental to democracy. It is part of it, it’s in there, but it’s not really central to democracy. And can of course be sometimes very frightening.

G: In your opinion, what do you hope the role of young people, and especially university students, to be in the Symposium?

JRS: I’ve been a number of times to your university, got an honourary degree there, gave a speech there not that long ago. It’s a great crowd. You’ve got a really lively student body, people told me when I was there that they felt the student body wasn’t engaged enough. I don’t know if it’s still true and I think that’s something that’s got to do with the geography of where the school is, I don’t know. But it’s a very good university and I think somehow people have to on campus start thinking of themselves in a more engaged way, no matter what their ideas are. And I think George Elliot Clarke is a fantastic speaker.

G: Could you describe him a bit further?

JRS: He’s both intellectual and one of our great poets; it’s a pretty rare combination. He has a great sense of the stage and how to talk with people, very dramatic and explosive. And he has quite a following among students but people who don’t know him, would I think find him quite fascinating. He brings to this something that people are a little unused to. He comes from Halifax, out of the black community and they’re loyalists. This is the ‘old Canada’ but it’s not what a lot of people think old Canada is. They have a view which I think is really direct and very surprising to a lot of people because experience is different.

G: With apathy becoming more prevalent in society, do you think it’s challenging for young people today to engage themselves in democracy?

JRS: Well I guess that Calgary’s the richest city in the country and the money’s really come out of the commodities. There’s a long tradition of places where commodities bring wealth and they also tend to bring a certain amount of apathy, partly because the engagement in the creation of the wealth is a lot less. Basically it’s there and it comes out of the ground, so obviously there’s some work to be done, but it’s not the same thing as manufacturing or service, or agriculture for that matter. There’s a risk, but it’s not that sort of one by one work. One always has to look when you’re in a commodities rich situation at what can happen. Argentina, in the 1920s and 1930s had a higher per capita income than Canada and as you know it’s been incredibly troubled for the last 30 years. But most of the explanations that have been written about this and a lot of it came from the sense of what’s ours is ours and a sort of sense of comfort that came from the fact that this money just kept appearing through the commodities. Out of that came a growing division between the rich and the poor and a growing sense of entitlement that those who could afford to should have better.

G: Why was Calgary chosen as the site of this year’s Symposium? How do the factors you just talked about come into play?

JRS: Well, we go to a different city every year but I felt personally that it was important to come to Calgary because I think it’s a very exciting city and one of the exciting cities in the country. I feel that there is a desire for debate in Calgary. I’ve spent quite a bit of time there over the years, but in particular, the last few years, chatting with people about how the city works. What is the city? How do you make the city work? And it’s very interesting when you have on one hand, this great wealth and also the great tradition of volunteerism, but on the other hand, a sort of growing division between rich and poor and to a certain extent, high levels of alienation. It’s a very interesting place to have this discussion. I think that people will react in a very interesting way to this.

G: Do you think the interesting reaction may be due in part to Calgary being well known as a very conservative city?

JRS: Well you never know what people mean when they say that Calgary is so conservative. Calgary’s a city, well if you’re talking political, then perhaps, but if you’re talking in other ways, it’s a city that is quite experimental, or likes to be quite experimental. It has a very strong cultural life and it’s the right place to have this discussion. I think it could have an impact in the city and I think it could have an impact beyond the city.

G: What do you hope will be the end result of the Symposium?

JRS: I always hope the same thing comes out of one of these and that is that the first thing you do is help spread a kind of debate that will take on a life of it’s own. I’m not a big believer that you do these things in order to come up with a conclusion. People will come up with their own conclusions, but what you can do is help provoke a debate. Part of it is tied to ideas of citizenship and I think there’s a real need all across Canada to talk very seriously about citizenship, both for new Canadians but also for Canadians who were born here. That’s part of the nature of democracy, what does a citizen do, we all know about the rights of the citizen, but what about the obligations? One of the obligations is participation and thinking and speaking up.

G: What do you think makes democracy different in Canada, in relation to other countries?

JRS: Here in Canada, the second largest country in the world, highest per capita immigration per year, the second highest immigration in straight numbers, so it’s very experimental in terms of immigration and citizenship, and we’ll endlessly talk about how we’re this new place. But in fact, we’re one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world and we forget that, very conveniently, really. The first waves of immigration to the West were Francophones and younger sons of Anglophones from the East, so there’s a long tradition of continuity in all this, then of course, it becomes different over the years because of the different place and different needs but I think that there’s an astonishing sense of continuity even if it’s not conscious. I think it’s really important to make it much more conscious that what we’re doing we’ve been doing since about 1848 and since then, every one of our allies has done civil wars, coup d’états, everything under the sun, slavery, whatever. And we’ve sort of somehow managed to stumble along around very difficult corners and hold it together. I think the other thing is that because we accepted from the very beginning that we would have two languages, multiple religions, which was not common in the 19th century. People were going in the other direction, banning things and looking for what I call monolithic systems. Because we, right from the beginning, went down the road of complexity and multiple elements, I think we got used to living with the idea of complexity and difference. I think Canadians are pretty good at accepting that idea of the lack of clarity. I think in other places, people get very nervous about lack of clarity because that comes out of their 19th century visions of, you know, a nation’s state’s all about clarifying things. Sometimes in Canada it’s all about muddying things.

G: Do you think there’s much chance for democratic reform in the country with the current minority government?

JRS: I just don’t know. I mean, I don’t know exactly what people expect when they say democratic reform. I think that we’ve done some interesting things in terms of reducing the ability of big money, whether it’s unions or business, at the federal level, to dominate and I would have thought that was a good thing. Where we clearly haven’t succeeded is in getting citizens to participate in a way that would regenerate the system. It’s amazing how well any number of systems can do if people engage themselves in them. The answer is very rarely technical. It’s usually about engagement. On the one hand engagement, on the other hand, the willingness of those who get power to understand that the purpose of power is first to understand those who didn’t vote for you. Great governments in the history of government sometimes frustrated their own followers by not going what they would say was fast enough. The reason they did that was because they were trying to understand what the whole population wanted. And that’s not something you fix through democratic reform, you know, there are people who say maybe we could do better with proportional, maybe, but it would probably always mean we would have a minority government. But you know, it would mean, there would be less flexibility on the other hand, it would mean that people who can’t get in would get in. Other people say that democratic reform is an elected senate. I think we spend a lot of time talking about technical reforms when what you actually need is engagement. Really what we do comes out of the process of debate and that’s what’s so interesting about it. Words are not worthless, words have great value, debate has great value. Even in the midst of our daily debates, there’s a link from 150, 160 years ago right through to tomorrow. People have a lot to say to each other and that’s a very exciting thing.


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