03/09/2015 01:04 EDT | Updated 05/09/2015 05:59 EDT

The Comeback: How Aboriginals Are Reclaiming Power and Influence

john ralston

John Ralston Saul is nominated for the Writers' Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book The Comeback: How Aboriginals Are Reclaiming Power and Influence. The prize winner will be announced at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa on March 11. For more information, visit

An excerpt from The Comeback:

It was Aboriginals -- through the Idle No More movement, through the frustration of youth, through a wave of new voices across the country, through their AFN leadership -- who raised their voices, went into the street, took personal action, seized every opportunity to speak up.

Their message? Our system is being changed in a profound way. Democratic permission has not been given for such changes. Parliament has been denied its fundamental responsibility of free speech; that is, of normal, full debate. And this to an unprecedented degree.

This latest move of public interventions by indigenous peoples needs to be seen as a sign of self-confidence, a sign of their comeback, of their willingness to take the lead.

2015-03-09-1425905264-5730273-saul_thecomeback_hc.jpg In situations like these, all of us who do not go into the streets, who do not directly engage in some verbal or physical way, begin by seeing ourselves as outsiders or simple observers. Perhaps as concerned observers. Some among us then lose interest. We go back to our daily routine. Others become annoyed. They see themselves as free-floating individuals. Whatever they do, whatever their routine is, trumps the actions and needs of everyone else. In a sense they have inverted the ethical idea that a society is a place in which the actions of an individual should not harm other individuals. The broad, humanist idea that individualism is about involvement in the shared public good is thus reduced by the self-absorbed and easily annoyed among us to mean that we must not be inconvenienced in our habits. And these sacred habits may vary from our daily needs to go driving and shopping to our unimpeded right to serve our own interests, even if fellow citizens are left to suffer. In this twisted scenario, those who are protesting against wrong being done to them or who are willing to make sacrifices for the broader public good are converted by the annoyed, self-obsessed observer into selfish people getting in the way of average citizens who wish to go about their normal lives undisturbed.

What we saw developing around Idle No More was that many Canadians, not normally involved in Aboriginal issues, began to feel themselves involved and concerned. They began to see themselves as somehow part of what was being said in the streets. True, they did not at first get up and go into the streets. But in conversations everywhere you could hear people worrying, somehow trying to understand the arguments being put forward. This could indicate a real step forward in the national psyche. And remember, it all happened during the winter. For Canadians, there is something particularly

convincing about people going into the streets in the winter and staying there.

When I talked at the time with young First Nations leaders across the country -- professors, businesspeople, professionals, writers, politicians -- they were excited about Idle No More. Not necessarily by the organization itself, which might morph into something else or into many new things. And not necessarily because they believed it had the answers or could succeed in some dramatic way. But because it showed the breadth and depth of commitment in their communities. A grassroots commitment to the public good. And it showed a widespread determination by a new generation to be heard, to be part of a serious discussion of the future.

This generation feels that it is on the move. Its members are not prepared to live with disappointment. What if Canada, through its various leaders, fails to seize this opportunity?

Fails to listen? To discuss? Fails to work, through a broad, transparent negotiation, toward a sense of resolution, a sense of concrete respect and creative progress? What if Canada wraps itself in an omnibus approach to power? Plebiscitary? In effect Napoleonic? Well then, Canada will have forced this burgeoning Aboriginal leadership into a renewed sense of exclusion. It will have produced - quite unnecessarily - a whole new phenomenon of bitterness. And this anger and disappointment, this loss of hope, will be solidly built upon a foundation of one hundred and fifty years of betrayal, anger, and disappointment. Is this really what Canadians want? To confirm to young Aboriginals that their only possible relationship to Canadian society is one of negativity and bitterness? The obligation of those with power is to avoid such a situation. If they do not, we will all suffer greatly. The obligations of citizens is to make it clear that Aboriginal issues are central to our public concerns, that we want them dealt with in a fully democratic context of openness and justice, that we will vote accordingly.

The flow of history is reinforcing the position of Aboriginal peoples. This is a historic and a human opportunity. To attempt to deny or to turn back such a moment of creativity would be self-destructive for Canada.

Excerpted from The Comeback by John Ralston Saul. Copyright © John Ralston Saul, 2014. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.


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