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Who Cares?  
Creative Responses to Social Obligations
A Dialogue Series

Monograph 2
Dialogue with His Excellency John Ralston Saul
April 21, 2021

There is a village in Nunavut with a community freezer.  There are two employees for the freezer.  They are butchers. When a member of the community hunts more caribou than their family needs they give it to the community freezer. Sometimes there are community hunts to gather meat for the freezer.  No one marks down who hunts or who donates meat to the freezer.  Donors are not rewarded for putting meat in the freezer.  When a member of the community needs meat they go to the freezer.  No record is kept of what they take or how often they go to the freezer.  They are not expected to thank anyone for the meat they take.  Although there are no records accounting for the giving and taking of meat that ensures everyone in the village has enough to eat, the community freezer is full.

Story told by John Ralston Saul


This monograph summarizes the second event in the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogue series.  John Ralston Saul was the speaker.  His comments to the group provoked a wide-ranging, stimulating discussion. The report of the discussion has been shaped around three emergent themes.  To create some continuity and cohesion, individual remarks are often combined and reflections are condensed.  Hopefully the spirit of this very open and provocative dialogue remains.

Quotations from Mr. Saul’s written work are included in italics. They have been added to expand the themes and the discussion that follows them. Reference materials that were noted by participants in the dialogue as being useful resources are cited at the end of the monograph.

Mr. Saul began the dialogue by commenting that the underlying point of a series like ‘Who Cares?’ is to work through confusion.  From his perspective the group needs to be looking for meaningful answers that reflect shared memory and understanding.  Spending time in dialogue will create the sharing and reflection necessary to engage in the daunting task of moving from the theoretical to the practical.  To begin the discussion he offered four observations:

  1. As Canadians we have an advantage in our search for creative responses to our social obligations.  Canada has a triangular foundation of First Nations, French and English.  We need to clear away some history in order to become informed by the First Nations leg of our foundation. This leg gives us access to what Jung described as our ‘animus roots.’  Such roots could be sources of uniting our spiritual and material dispositions.  Unique, although sometimes lost, First Nations’ responses to caring are available through example, story telling and mythology. In many First Nations communities charity, as we know it, with gratitude expected of the recipient and ego-stroking of the donor, is unknown.  The most impressive elite in the country is young First Nations.

  2. In terms of caring there are other ways of doing things.  Our work should focus on the models that are working and explore levels or contexts in which they are working.  One of the biggest intellectual traps is mixing levels, as in the example of the concept of city-states.  The actual role of a city in a large territory, its connection with nature and relationship to the land that surrounds it, is lost in this concept.  We need to understand various levels and contexts in order to examine and judge the usefulness of structures.

  3. Caring can lead to ‘solutionism’ or paternalism.  Palliative care is an answer that is the opposite of providing solutions.  It is not focused on curing or preventing death.  Palliative care is not about structure and self interest but rather, human relationships.  Hospices are surprisingly happy, warm and sensitive places in the face of death. 

  4. The very real problem of conformity needs to be considered. Canada is an experiment that can only develop by rewarding nonconformity.  As we have embraced the rise of corporatism, we have rewarded conformity.  In the ‘caring sector’ there is enormous fear of speaking out.  There are also very few elected social workers or environmentalists.  Interestingly, the civil service, a place known for its conformity, is a place we might target our efforts.  It is easy to access, responsive to leadership and there are many young, bright individuals who head there after graduating from university.

As discussion emerged between Mr. Saul and the group members, three themes or strands evolved: caring and charity, structure and content, corporatism and capitalism.  The first two of these themes directly inform the group’s search for creative responses to social obligations.  The third, corporatism and capitalism, speaks to a larger context that influences individual, collective and systemic caring responses.  

Charity and Caring

‘The targeting of need – which is what it comes down to – takes us back to the old top down, judgment and eventually moralizing approach towards those citizens who have problems.  In fact this is false efficiency because it removes the simplicity of inclusion and replaces it with an outdated, highly charged, labour intensive managerial approach.’

From the Inaugural Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture

The link between caring, charity and capitalism was explored when a group member noted that caring is a question of incentives.  In other words we need to figure out why people care and why they do the things they do.  What do people get out of caring?

Mr. Saul responded to these comments saying it is inaccurate to suggest people are only driven by self-interest.  Citizenship is about obligation, not about choosing to be generous.  Using universal, economic theories to inform social reform will undermine what our society is built upon. In countries where there is no pad or mattress of institutions based on the common good there are devastating boom and bust cycles.  It is dangerous to suggest that because something has evolved a certain way that that is the way it should be.

Some group members noted that caring is an investment in civil society.  Charity is the opposite of caring.  People do act at times with a motive, seeking a reward or return, but most often the reason for caring is simply because “it could not be any other way.”  It is a part of being human.  Corporatism and scale dislocate us from our caring natures.  The way capitalism is evolving is not providing the answers.

A group member observed that our Victorian, Protestant world-view dominates our systems of rewards and punishments.  Overcoming it will be a major spiritual challenge.  Our systems of care often dehumanize and demoralize participants.

Structure and Content

‘What I am describing is a curiosity of democratic societies.  We start out with a long view and a desire to create inclusive programs.  Democracy rightfully requires that we create them in an ad hoc manner.  Over the short term this is fine.  But if we leave them in an ad hoc form, they gradually become the opposite of what we originally intended.’

From the Inaugural Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture

Mr. Saul noted the caring sector is as corporatist as any other sector.  Our professionalized system of caring is a highly sophisticated way of ‘doing charity.’  With its increasing professionalization it needs more and more structural bolstering or justification.  Modern management theory has crept into our systems of care ennobling the administrative process in structure and law.  Our biggest problem is that we end up defending the structures of caring we have created versus the original ideas that were the impetus for their formation. Mr. Saul is most impressed by people finding ways to live their own lives, in their own way.

Participants wondered what structures exist in First Nations communities that we could use.  There was mention that there is good and bad in all structures.  Co-operatives, businesses, and non-profits need to understand each other and work together.  We need pluralistic solutions.  We should be able to cooperate and compete.  We need to re-think structures and organizations in government and bring the community in.

Other group members commented that many of our structures and solutions in our systems of caring prevent action.  There has been a narrowing of perspectives that has limited people’s ability to imagine alternatives.  People do not know how to articulate their caring within the frameworks they are handed.   We donate to charity but don’t know or even ask where the money goes. 

This led to the observation that we need to find new ways of measuring our well-being beyond the GNP.  This information will help us know how to act and where to direct our time and resources.  The Oregon Benchmarks is an interesting, statewide measurement and planning tool with cross-sectoral indicators.  Their findings have informed a cohesive vision and plan for a diverse society to move in a unified direction.

Corporatism and Capitalism

‘Capitalism no longer spins around the ownership of the means of production, but around the acts of trading and producing.  Those who produce and trade win.  Ownership is just a series of accidents in the ever-changing market place.’

From “Reflections of a Siamese Twin”

Mr. Saul defines corporatism as each group having its own purpose, organization, and financial strength.  These group interests negate democracy, which depends on the contribution of individual citizens.

A group member observed that capitalism is a system that evolved to get people to cooperate.  The institutions we see are a result of people making choices.  While some members agreed that it is true everyone can participate in capitalism they questioned whether there is really a choice to participate or not.  In addition while we may direct how we participate in a capitalist system it is often difficult to make investment choices out of the ordinary.

Participants noted it is very difficult to understand how corporations and money actually work.  There is a mythology of the corporation.  People speculate and invest but they don’t actually control or direct the operations.

Mr. Saul declared himself a capitalist but made a plea for what he called ‘real capitalism’ with organizations run by people who own them.  Pension funds could be examples of this but still can be overrun by managers who are trained to run things as opposed to doing things.

Concluding Observations/Remarks

Mr. Saul’s reflections and observations stimulated a deeper exploration of caring and the contexts in which it occurs.  He is very positive about the possibility of creating change and believes in macro solutions.  From his perspective the last ten years of de-regulation has resulted in micro-management.  Specialization is segmenting thought in universities. 

In the exploration of caring he advised the group to continually bring foundational ideas to the fore.  What is happening to our good ideas, (the raison d’ętre of our actions), is that they are often obscured by the structures designed to implement them.  For example, the public education system was formed with the original idea or intent of creating a strong citizenry.  However, students in the Maritimes are graduating with a thirty to fifty thousand dollar debt.  How can they become active, contributing citizens with this kind of debt load? 

To some extent the initial discussions of the ‘Who Cares?’ dialogues have been about identifying the foundational ideas about our social obligations and systems of care.  Many examples have been shared that illustrate how the ‘good intentions’ of social welfare have been mutated as it was systematized.  Spending more time identifying the foundational ideas could be useful in the analysis of the models of care that have been created.  In which contexts are the intentions or foundational ideas realized?  In which are they lost?   The theme of scale has arisen frequently in the dialogues, with the general observation that the greater the scale the harder it is to keep the foundational ideas in the forefront.  Are there exceptions to this?  When is scale an advantage in responding to social obligations?

Mr. Saul believes the rural/urban split is one of the most pressing issues in Canada.  Ninety to ninety-five per cent of our country is north of the cities where 95 per cent of the population lives.  Canada could lose this land if it is not included in the dominant view.  Without its inclusion in the imaginations and actions of the dominant Canadian population base the land lays like a vast, empty vacuum ready to be filled.  Clearly this observation has implications for the group members.  How can the rural view of caring be incorporated in its explorations?

In speaking to the group’s examination of caring, Mr. Saul made a concluding point similar to one made by Dr. Mahoney in the first dialogue.  They both believe we are fortunate to have the Downtown Eastside as a presence in our midst.  Otherwise we might be able to ignore it.  Its presence forces the dialogue group to stretch in its examination of caring and social obligations.  It is a paradox that in the task of building a society in which every citizen is assumed worthy, the most oppressed people have the most power to shape what is built. This is because it is only when they are exercising their capacity to act as citizens that we will have achieved the society we want.

Reference Materials/Resources

References and resources noted by Who Cares? participants:

  1. Money and the Meaning of Life
    Author: Jacob Needleman
    Publisher: Doubleday
    ISBN #: 038526242-6
    Book of interest - suggested by Herb Barbolet 

  2. Amartya Sen
    Author of interest - suggested by Don Cayo
    Received the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics for his contributions to welfare economics.
    Some of the author’s most popular publications:  
    Development As Freedom - August 2000
    Inequality Reexamined - April 1995  
    Economics, Values and Organization - February 1997  

  3. Organization of interest - suggested by Mike Lewis
    The Oregon Benchmarks
    Please refer to the following websites for further information:  or  -  this will provide a link with information on The Oregon Benchmarks

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