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Rooted in the Power of Three 
By John Ralston Saul, The Globe and Mail, Friday, March 8, 2002

We have long regarded our society's origin as bipolar. But it is triangular, its foundations influenced by anglophone, francophone and aboriginal cultures 

Something that exists does not go away because we pretend it isn't there. Much of the past 150 years of our history has been troubled -- indeed, hobbled -- by an almost childlike, head-under-the-blanket approach toward the central role of aboriginals in the ongoing shape of Canadian society.

Our other successes are obvious. We have gradually and successfully expanded our unusual -- revolutionary in classic nation-state terms -- approach toward what constitutes a society. Why revolutionary? Because it has always been non-monolithic. From what we often call its anglophone-francophone foundations, we have created something much more complex.

You could argue that it was this original, non-monolithic foundation that made it possible for us gradually to imagine the remarkable complexity that we now boast of with such comfort and ease. What's more, we have managed this without losing the concept and the reality of the foundations.

It's worth pointing out this success, because other equally well-intentioned democratic nation-states are still struggling with a non-monolithic approach -- struggling even though such an approach would permit them to reflect the reality of their societies today. What holds them back, I think, is their core 18th-19th century idea of a nation-state as a monolithic society.

But we also are held back, albeit in another way. We do pay lip service to the aboriginal role in our society. We may even be well-intentioned on the subject. When I started saying a few years ago that our foundations were not bipolar but triangular -- aboriginal, francophone, anglophone -- the idea was greeted as a normal expression of our reality. This was the tripartite assumption upon which all of our subsequent complexity was built.

Yet when you examine the daily ways in which we describe ourselves, you find that we almost automatically brush the aboriginal pillar aside. I am not necessarily talking here about governmental or legal matters. In fact, the courts have gone a long way over the past half century toward normalizing our triangular foundation.

What I am talking about is how we imagine ourselves as individuals and as a society.

If we begin our discussions -- our descriptions of ourselves -- from a false or incomplete basis, then all that follows will be deformed. Canadians know that for approximately a century -- varying in length and precise period across the country -- we acted as if the aboriginal element was no longer central to the Canadian reality. Often we acted as if that reality simply didn't exist. Our denial took on myriad forms, beginning with the most basic. On his death bed in 1807, the great Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant, talked of how it seemed "natural" for Europeans to look "on lands in the possession of Indians with an aching heart and never to rest till they had planned them out of them."

But again, deny it as we might, what exists doesn't go away just because we pretend it isn't there. And so today many of the most basic Canadian factors are evolving to reflect the triangular reality of our foundations.

Studies say that in a few decades, 50 per cent of the work force in Saskatchewan will be aboriginal. Manitoba isn't far behind. There has been a resurgence in force of the Métis as a social factor in a number of provinces. Nunavik, the Inuit region in northern Quebec, has become a very interesting success story over the past 30 years. Nunavut is a new and fascinating experiment in governing differently. The Nisga'a treaty in British Columbia is working. And the recent agreement between the Cree and Quebec further solidifies their partnership. The arrival of large numbers of aboriginals in many of our cities may be a challenge for them and for the cities. But it is also an opportunity for all of us to reconceptualize urban life.

My point is that Canadian society is all too eager to limit the contribution of aboriginals to questions that directly concern them. If Canada does have a triangular foundation, I personally want to hear what that first party has to say about the whole of our society.

In a sense the first three years of the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium have been an attempt to set out a debate in that way. Last year, Alain Dubuc produced a properly disturbing look at anglophone unconsciousness of its own nationalism. This year, Georges Erasmus, with an unprecedented experience as a national chief, co-chair of a historic royal commission and now chair of a large fund dedicated to dealing with the effects of residential-school abuse, will turn his eye onto the wider question of Canada.

Some might be surprised that a lecture organized in honour of a francophone and an anglophone politician in power 150 years ago would focus on seemingly other issues. But they are not other issues.

Yes, Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin crystallized the idea of anglophone-francophone co-operation. But the basis of that co-operation, as they expressed it -- and, indeed, as Joseph Howe expressed democracy in Nova Scotia -- was a shared social project that could be described as essentially egalitarian and inclusive. That they did not understand the aboriginal role was a flaw. But it is also their non-monolithic model that makes it possible to rectify that error. And their attitudes toward accessible public services, public education, decentralized justice and arms-length public institutions are the levers with which we still work today to express our desire for inclusiveness.

What is fascinating as this lecture moves across the country each year, from Toronto to Montreal and now to Vancouver, is that when you look at the original pro-Confederation voices in the old British Columbian colony -- Amor de Cosmos and John Robson first among them -- they virtually mirrored the ideas in all their strengths and weaknesses of LaFontaine, Baldwin and Howe.

We have more than 400 years of experience -- with varying success -- working upon this triangular foundation within our society. What we call Canadian or British Columbian or Québécois or Nova Scotian has always had central aboriginal elements in the way it is conceived. Our approaches toward law and multiple social relationships are far less British and European than is often suggested.

Each way you turn, the roots of the Canadian idea are tied up in aboriginal concepts and methods. That is the past, but it is also the present and the future. I think Georges Erasmus can help us all with how that role will continue to grow and evolve; and how it should be central to our discussions of what we are as a society.

John Ralston Saul is chair of the advisory board of the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium.

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