John Ralston Saul: ‘We have to make sure it keeps moving’

John Ralston Saul reflects on Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples

John Ralston Saul’s interest in Indigenous people dates back further than 2008, when he published A Fair Country, the book in which he argued that Canada is a Métis nation, heavily influenced and shaped by Aboriginal ideas.

Not everyone knows that Ralston Saul has been interested in Canada’s Indigenous peoples for four decades.

In the spring of 1976, when the respected intellectual and award-winning writer was 29, he travelled to Inuvik and the High Arctic Islands as an assistant to Maurice Strong, the founding chair and CEO of Petro-Canada.

John Ralston Saul at CMU
John Ralston Saul speaking at CMU (June 14, 2016)

The trip was nothing short of eye opening for Ralston Saul, who had just spent seven years in France, first earning a PhD and then running a small investment firm in Paris. He thought he understood Canada, but in listening to the Indigenous peoples that he and Strong met with, he realized he didn’t.

“(They were) making arguments I’d never heard (before),” Ralston Saul said. “They weren’t talking for or against, they weren’t talking romantically about nature the way southerners do. And I realized that I’d been deeply lied to—that my education had not prepared me for the reality of my own country.”

Since that experience, Ralston Saul has sought to better understand Canadian history and draw awareness to Indigenous issues.

His most recent book, 2014’s The Comeback, calls on readers to embrace and support the comeback of Indigenous peoples, and highlights the need to rebuild relationships with them

Ralston Saul travelled to Winnipeg last month to talk about the book with students in the course “Reconciling Our Future: Stories of Kanata and Canada” at Canadian Mennonite University’s (CMU) Canadian School of Peacebuilding (CSOP).

Ralston Saul came at the invitation of his friend, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, who taught the course.

During his visit to CMU, Ralston Saul also gave a public lecture at the university exploring immigration that drew a capacity crowd.

“What’s happening all over the country at a growing rate is that Canadians who were totally ignorant on Indigenous issues are gradually becoming less ignorant,” Ralston Saul said in an interview prior to the lecture.

He credits courses and books taught and written by Indigenous people with leading the charge.

“I’m kind of the exception to the rule that in the new wave, there aren’t that many non-Indigenous people that are writing in the nonacademic world,” he said.

He added that he has always been careful to write neither to, nor for, Indigenous people. If anything, he is writing to a non-Indigenous audience.

“I use my voice to say, Wake up guys. There’s a life and it’s got the word ‘Indigenous’ written all over it. So, you better wake up.”

Ralston Saul likens publishing A Fair Country to leaping off a “great, big diving board.” Given the nature of the book’s ideas, he thought it could be the end of his career.

Instead, he was thrilled to see Indigenous people embracing it.

He recalls talking about the book with Indigenous young people in Rainy River, a town in northwestern Ontario.

“(That was) very exciting because I think that so much of Canada is in the south, written by the south, for the south, and there’s a real denial of two-thirds to three-quarters of the country,” he said.

Before writing The Comeback, Ralston Saul wasn’t planning to return to the topic of Indigenous affairs. In fact, he had an entirely different book planned.

Still, he woke up one day with the feeling that he had to write something before the 2015 federal election that expressed his belief that rebuilding right relationships with Canada’s Indigenous peoples was of utmost importance.

“I had to intervene in the election as a writer to say that for me, and I think for the country, this is the single most important issue, and people should be voting on the basis of how the political parties stood on this issue,” he said.

He is pleased that Canadians voted in a government that says that it believes that the Indigenous question, unresolved as it is, is the single most important issue in Canada.

“We’ve come a long way, (us) non-Aboriginals,” Ralston Saul said. When it comes to these topics, there’s momentum now. “Suddenly, it’s moving. We have to make sure it keeps moving.”


Seed-saving at CMU leads to relationships between Mennonites, indigenous peoples

Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) made headlines this fall when it was revealed that workers at the CMU Farm, in collaboration with members of the Métis community, had successfully grown an ancient variety of squash from seeds shared with them by the White Earth Seed Library in Minnesota.

The story that accompanied the “Gete-Okosomin” squash seeds was that they were found in a clay ball at an archaeological excavation near the Wisconsin-Illinois border. It went on to suggest that the dating of the clay ball indicated that the seeds were more than 800 years old.

The story captured the imagination of seed savers and gardeners across the continent. It is a good story—but is it true?

When asked, Kenton Lobe, Instructor in International Development Studies at CMU and one of the CMU Farm’s founders, smiles.

“The truth of the story of these squash seeds is still emerging,” he says.

Kenton Lobe and Caroline Chartrand with squash
Kenton Lobe and Caroline Chartrand with Gete-Okosomin squash grown at the CMU Farm

Further digging into the history of the Gete-Okosomin seeds—which, roughly translated, means “cool old squash”—reveals that they were originally gifted to David Wrone, an emeritus University of Wisconsin historian, by some elder women gardeners from the Miami Nation in Indiana in 1995.

One of these squash had been grown and saved by the Miami people for many generations, perhaps even thousands of years.

The men and women stewarding the seed took care to grow them so that they would not cross-pollinate with other kinds of squash, maintaining the variety and characteristics that Lobe suggests resulted in a tasty and prolific squash.

One of the squash grown this season weighed in at more than 30 pounds.

In a note to the White Earth Seed Library, Wrone—who has spent much of his career studying the history of indigenous peoples around the Great Lakes—relates that he had earlier received squash seeds that had been found deep underground in a cave in Kentucky.

They were well preserved in perfect temperature and humidity and were estimated to be several thousand years old. Wrone reports that he grew them out, but that they were “smallish and not as tasty.”

The seeds from the Miami women were shared with Wrone and eventually with White Earth Seed Library.

Over time and through many tellings, these two squash seed stories crossed and turned into one.

The seeds shared with the CMU Farm were, in fact, those grown by the Miami women.

Pollinating Gete-Okosomin squash at the CMU Farm

During the last three growing seasons, members of the Metanoia Farmers Worker Cooperative, who work the CMU Farm, collaborated with Caroline Chartrand, who describes herself as “the landless Métis seed saver,” to grow the seeds out and maintain the varietal purity of the squash.

Their pioneering hand-pollinating method involves community members in planting and caring for the plants, and in harvesting the seed to share with others.

Megan Klassen-Wiebe, one of the farmers, presented this methodology at the Indigenous Farming Conference at White Earth Indian Reservation in March 2013.

“When we started the CMU Farm, we talked a lot about seeds—the politics of seeds and the role they play in our global agriculture system,” Klassen-Wiebe says. “To have connected with Caroline and be doing seed-saving work is exciting.”

Lobe says that whether or not the original story is ‘true,’ growing the squash has helped forge relationships between Métis and Mennonites, with Anishinaabe peoples in Minnesota and ultimately, with Miami gardeners.

“The truth is, the work of seed saving has opened up space for indigenous-settler dialogue and has been both hopeful and helpful,” he adds, noting that the CMU Farm lies on what in the 1870s was a Métis river lot, and which is still part of Treaty 1 territory.

Chartrand says that seed-saving is important in Métis culture because in one sense, every time a variety of vegetables goes extinct, part of Métis history is sacrificed.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this partnership I have with Kenton and the farmers at CMU,” she says. “As a result of our work, we have varieties of seeds that were once rare that are now in seed libraries across Canada and the United States.”

While the new development in the Gete-Okosomin story may not seem as exciting as the story the farmers originally received with the seed, it is still fascinating, and shows the care and commitment the Miami people had for this variety of squash.

The story helps those who grow and eat the squash to appreciate the long agricultural history and seed saving skills of indigenous peoples.

“The story opens up people’s imagination to indigenous seed varieties and the stewarding of agricultural biodiversity, which has been done by indigenous farmers from time immemorial,” Lobe says.

The squash seeds will eventually be available for sharing through the fledgling Red River Regional Seed Library hosted on CMU’s campus.

“We love this squash for the story, its unique size and beauty, as well as for its deliciousness and the food it provides through the winter,” Lobe says. “It plays a part in cultivating agricultural biodiversity on the farm and in restoring relationships with people who were here before the Mennonites arrived in this region.”