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John Ralston Saul at home: ‘Just transfer the power and money, and get on with it.’

John Hryniuk/The Globe and Mail

In the winter of 2012-13, John Ralston Saul watched as the Idle No More movement swept across the country, bringing thousands of aboriginal people into the streets to draw attention to a wide range of issues.

When the round dances stopped and the media moved on, he decided to write something – a pamphlet or manifesto that would help explain to a non-aboriginal audience what had just happened. According to Mr. Saul, when aboriginal leaders speak, many Canadians tend to misinterpret what they are saying.

The result is his new book The Comeback, the story of a movement that has been building from a low point a little more than a century ago to where it's now poised, he says, to reclaim a central place in Canadian affairs.

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The author begins by dismissing sympathy, the lens through with which many Canadians view aboriginal issues. That's just soft racism, he argues. Sympathy is fine as a point of entry, but it obscures why things are the way they are.

"The actual problem is they have rights, and they've been removed," he says during a conversation in his Toronto living room this week. "If they had their rights back in the full sense of the word, you wouldn't have to feel sympathy. Sympathy is a way of not dealing with the central issues of the treaties."

The treaties are at the heart of The Comeback. The opening page is dedicated to an image of the Peace of Montreal of 1701, signed by the Iroquois, more than 30 other first nations and New France, which Mr. Saul calls the beginning of the Canadian idea of "treaty." These agreements to share the land are what make modern Canada possible. "We are all treaty people," Mr. Saul says. "Every Canadian is a signatory to those agreements, and those agreements have a meaning."

Up to roughly 1850, indigenous people were powerful leaders and partners in Canadian history, Mr. Saul says. It was in this early settlement period that the habits of the country were formed, Mr. Saul says – for example, our accommodating attitude to newcomers, of accepting complexity and flexibility rather than insisting on rigid identities in the European or American style. After that, disease, the disappearance of the buffalo, and the imposition of increasingly punitive laws that robbed indigenous people of their freedom to move, to conduct commerce, to raise their own children locked them into a position of weakness. They resisted, but it was difficult, and rebuilding has taken the better part of a century.

"From 1850 on, you gradually get this rewriting of Canadian history to eliminate the role and contribution in every way of aboriginal people … and that's the period when the universities are set up, the educational curricula, so you get this idea that it all comes from Britain and France, and the aboriginals are not there or there in a very derogatory way."

The writing of the book took 28 drafts, about 20 more than he would typically produce, says Mr. Saul, whose many other books include Voltaire's Bastards and, most recently, A Fair Country. He is also president of PEN international and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

The Comeback is short and clear – about 180 pages by Mr. Saul and 80 more of appended texts – meant to be read in an afternoon. The writing is interspersed with photos that buttress his argument, including those of several members of a new indigenous intelligentsia that emerged in the public discussion around Idle No More: people such as academics Hayden King, Niigaan Sinclair and Taiaiake Alfred, as well as the four Saskatchewan women who founded the movement – Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, Jessica Gordon and Sheela McLean.

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"When people just go into the streets and stay there, it's a profound statement about their state of mind," Mr. Saul says. "This was a very strong indicator to anyone who was listening that things were changing and, if you don't do something practical and real, [the movement] will come back in a way none of us will know. It could be violent; it could be a total refusal to co-operate; it could be withdrawal from allowing corporations to come on their territory; it could be anything. The longer you leave something that needs to be done, the more unpredictable the next stage is."

What is the next stage? He argues that Canada needs to recast its relationship with its indigenous peoples. The government needs to move quickly on treaty rights and land claims, to completely throw out its approach of stalling and appealing for year after year. The constitutional questions have been solved; the courts rule consistently in favour of indigenous rights over their lands. Two generations ago, there were only a handful of indigenous people in higher education in this country. Today, there are more than 30,000. An educated indigenous middle class is prepared to take the lead.

Power is shifting. He points to the pipeline debates; to the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, where corporations are having to learn to engage indigenous people as full partners. Look at the way Métis and First Nations people are reclaiming their identities in the tens of thousands on the census. This is the New Canada, he says; it just happens to be an old Canada re-emerging. Now the government must do its part.

"A big transfer of power and money changes a lot of things – just transfer the power and the money, and get on with it," Mr. Saul contends. "The issue at hand is treaty rights. It's 75 cents on the dollar [in government funding] for aboriginal education, or even less. It's obvious that we shouldn't be at 65 cents or 75 cents but $1.25 or $1.50. Just do it. There is nothing stopping the government from doing it. It is not a problem of funding. It's a problem of willpower and policy.

"The message in this is very simple," he adds. "Canadians have to walk into polling booths and say, 'I will vote for this person because this person will put aboriginal issues at the top of the pile.'

"Aboriginal leaders have been saying what they're saying today for a very long time."

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