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The Globe and Mail

Rideau Hall gets it: We're an aboriginal society

In A Fair Country, a book that may come to be seen as a seminal work, John Ralston Saul poses the thesis that we have misrepresented ourselves to ourselves.

The Europeanization of Canada didn't make us European. The Americanization of Canada didn't make us American. The central and abiding inspiration of Canada, the outside-the-box author maintains, is aboriginal. Our writers of history, our elites, our paternalists, those caught up in their Euro-cultural biases, have missed the story. Today, the European influence wanes while the first nations' influence expands - in the newly important Far North, in respect to environmental causes, with the ways of the top courts, with other trends.

Mr. Saul's book, published in September, came to mind with Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's startlingly provocative seal-gorging venture on Rankin Inlet. It was a terrific moment. The Governor-General, in effect, stuck her ulu blade into the gut of the European Union pooh-bahs who voted for a ban on seal products. Did they forget their barbaric ways with respect to their own poultry? Of greater consequence was the ringing symbolism of her act, how it will stand as a signature declaration of support for the rights and traditions of native peoples.

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Ms. Jean's predecessor, Adrienne Clarkson, wasn't impressed. When asked about it while in Iqaluit on the weekend, she harrumphed: "I've eaten raw food here since 1971. It's nothing new to me, okay?"

Okay, but the ego spats need be set aside. What Ms. Jean, Mr. Saul and Ms. Clarkson, who made the native peoples a passionate focus of her reign, have done is too important for that. Their works, writings and deeds have given the marginalized indigenous peoples a timely measure of stature.

There were never enough votes for the politicians to do it. Journalists haven't given the story its due; someone had to fill the void. And isn't it a splendid irony that it's the Queen's surrogates, the denizens of the pillared hall that stood so long as the bastion of colonialism, who have come to the fore?

Sequestration or assimilation was the old approach to the first nations. But that won't do today. The North is where two-thirds of our resource wealth lies and where the native peoples are.

Arctic sovereignty is at issue, and the original inhabitants of that space are key to our claim. The fragility of the environment is a cardinal cause of our time, and what group of Canadians has been the custodian of the environment? The new trend in the high courts is to compel us to deal with our historic obligations to the native peoples. We're renegotiating 19th-century treaties. There's a new emphasis on oral traditions. In our cultural world, aboriginal art has a mainstream place.

The native peoples are the fastest growing segment of Canada's population. With the birth rate booming, aboriginals number more than 1.2 million, and there are more Inuit than ever before. Given the immigration trends, Canada is less dominated by Europeans, whose nationalism marginalized the first nations.

The European version of Canada's story, the one many of us have come to know, reduced the North to a place to be crossed. It led to native peoples being sidelined or assimilated. And it shoved 300 years of our early history to the periphery.

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If anyone paused long enough to examine how this country evolved, argues Mr. Saul in his remarkable, if overly one-sided, book, they would see where Canada got its ideas of interdependence, its habit of finding the middle way, its sense of peacekeeping and fairness, the idea that the land was to be served, not pillaged, and the belief that we should all be eating from the common bowl.

The story needs to be refocused, not in a way that glosses over the many failings of the aboriginal communities and the ills that persist - the corruption, the poverty, the despair - but that sees the aboriginals as a central inspiration in our past and essential players in our future.

The old habits of denial won't work any more. Michaëlle Jean's seal-heart act packed much needed punch, as if it were taken from the pages of Mr. Saul's book. Rideau Hall once skewered the Canadian identity. Now it illuminates it.

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