News | Saul redefines Canada’s legal origins

Speaker urges recognition of aboriginal influence on Canadian law

Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul addressed the aboriginal influence on Canadian culture and legal tradition Tuesday at the McGill Law Journal Annual Lecture, which attracted an audience of 250-300 people, necessitating the creation of an “overflow” room where his talk was simulcast.

Saul asserted at the McGill Law Journal Annual Lecture that Canada’s legal culture was based on aboriginal ideas of egalitarianism, welfare, and justice – and not on tensions between the French civil code and English common law. He eschewed the current model of Canadian history that focuses on the French and English as the country’s founders.

“There’s a classic thing to say, that we’re a more European country than the States, but we’re the least European country in the [western] world,” he said. “Canada is built on three founding pillars: anglophones, francophones, and aboriginals.”

Saul argued that Canadian concepts such as single-tier health care, legal aid, and even multiculturalism cannot be traced to Europe, but rather to First Nations’ philosophies that the country’s migrants inherited. The uniqueness of Canadian geography makes many European concepts irrelevant, he contended, noting that early settlers had to give up the wheel – what many Westerners consider a sign of “civilization” – for the canoe when traversing the Canadian Shield.

“Everything that works in Canada cannot be traced back to Europe,” he said. “Every time we try to do something European, we do conscription, or ban languages, or racism.”

Shane Murphy, U3 Law and English executive editor for the McGill Law Journal, was happy to see a speaker challenge the diametric view of law that’s commonly taught.

“We wanted to invite someone in here who would challenge our view of Canadian legal history,” Murphy said. “Although we’re taught aboriginal law at McGill, it’s almost seen as separate from Canadian law.”

In his lecture, Saul also accused the media of tokenizing its coverage of indigenous groups by focusing on pity-inducing stories about alcoholism or suicide rates, trying to make the aboriginal question disappear. He related the current political climate in aboriginal communities to that of the francophones in the 1960s.

“If you look at the past 50 years of Canadian history, it’s been about the attempt to reestablish the power of the francophone pillar,” he said. “One can say that it’s been pretty successful, whether the country falls apart or not, because the francophone fact has been reasserted. But that other pillar, the original pillar, has been virtually ignored.”

Saul’s theories resonated with many audience members.

Michael Doxtater, McGill’s only First Nations professor, said Saul’s ideas will gain more traction as the country moves into recession.

“You’re going to have to completely rethink the way the economy runs, the way wealth is distributed, the way we demonstrate our humanity to each other,” he said, adding that Canadians can find wisdom in indigenous models of trade networks and commerce as the monetary system begins to collapse.

While Mae Jane Nam, U2 Law, was impressed by Saul’s reconception of Canadian history, she said his belief that Canadians are eager to embrace a new model of their identity is optimistic.

“Even in our school, with issues surrounding our Chancellor [referring to pre-European Canada as ‘un pays de sauvages’], a lot of us are very hesitant to acknowledge the contribution of civilizations that existed before European colonization and imperialism,” she said.

But Nam said she believes that with a lot of re-education – which begins with intellectuals like Saul disseminating their ideas – the three-pillar model of Canadian identity could someday become mainstream.