08w07:4 John Ralston Saul on Canadian Culture in 1986

by timothy. 1 Comment

Culture: A Mirror and a Weapon (Excerpt) | John Ralston Saul
From Culture: A Mirror and a Weapon by John Ralston Saul. Found in “You’ve Got Ten minutes to get that flag down…”: Proceedings of The Halifax Conference:A National Forum on Canadian Cultural Policy (Conference took place in September 1985, and the book was published in 1986; Amazon.ca; partially browseable on Google Books). Occasional comments on content by me footnoted:

This is not to argue that Canadian culture cannot make money or that it is not produced by a group within the community. It can and it is. But that has nothing to do with the role and importance of culture. Financial profits are artistic communities are by-products of culture, not the reasons for it. Only a great dominant culture can afford to concentrate on by-products. We are obliged to be extremely careful in the ways we choose to build our own mythology and to protect it, not only against the force of America, but also of France and of England, all three of whom perceive us a being worthy of their cultural leadership.

Culture, in all places and at all times, is a mirror for the nation out of which it emerges. Those who create should not claim for themselves the reassuring status of a specialized community. Their role, after all, is to provide a reflection of all of the communities within the nation. This is not to say that writers must sit down with the hand of socialist realism upon their shoulders. We, as individuals, may produce thousands of images for thousands of reasons. Nevertheless, each of those images, each of our reasons, will reveal themselves as part of our society’s reflection of itself. The farmers, the garment makers, the teachers, each have their jobs and their lives; but their reflection of themselves in in our hands. Whether the CBC or McClelland and Stewart make money out of it, whether the creator is compensated by a pension plan is of interest to the individuals immediately concerned, but irrelevant to a people’s reflection of themselves.1 That is, irrelevant to culture.


The remarkable thing about Canada’s culture is that despite unprecedented pressures from the United States, England and France, despite a branch-plant class of Canadian citizens who work partially or entirely at cross purposes to the national interest, we continue to run our country in our own very peculiar way and to produce ever greater amounts of accurate cultural reflection.

While the American novel sinks into degenerate university methodology or verbose facility, and the English novel into provincial regret and the French novel into perfected navel gazing and paralyzed language, the Canadian novel, English and French, appears young and strong, charged with a tough clean language and an unforgiving eye. Much of the same could be said for our painting or our poetry or, for example, our theatre, if you were to compare the force of a Tremblay or a Murrell with the helpless self-indulgence of the West End or the endless droning on of revived Broadway musicals. But if all of this is true, if our culture is perfectly healthy, what then is our problem? Because we do indeed act as if we have a great problem.

Perhaps it lies with the curious psychological blanket which we seem determined to lay over our culture. Worse than constantly attempting to define our efforts, we also insist upon making those definitions in relationship to three other nations. And yet, as we are not ancient, self-indulgent, declining ex-colonial powers struggling through the last steps of European nationalism. Nor are we the most powerful nation the world has ever seen, brandishing riches and nuclear force on the one hand, while slipping into poverty on the other thanks to an inability to deal with 60 million ex-slaves and Hispanic immigrants. It is therefore somewhat lunatic to expect our reflection of ourselves to resemble theirs of themselves. We are, despite our standard of living and our democracy, more like a third world country than anything else. And if we are to find soul brothers beyond our borders, then we should be looking for energetic, lean, aggressive, self-criticizing language and thought patterns, almost free of self-indulgence, almost free of proselytizing mythology. Friends with those sorts of qualities we are far more likely to find among dissidents of Eastern Europe or of Central and South America; among the creators of Australia and New Zealand or other smaller democracies.

It makes no sense for us to chase after the indifferent shadows of ex and current super powers. Our own reflection is a complete and adequate picture. It is the portrait of an outsider. Of a third world. A provincial body. I use this word – provincial – with enthusiasm and pride. Provincialism has always been a strength for the creator. The great imperial urban centres have never been hot beds of creation. Their citizens have always been too satisfied with the fast and easy excitement of their environment. They mistake fashion and sophistication and knowing the right people for creation and culture.2 They are too carefully political, too basely ambitious. They specialize in salon art3 and closed conversations disguised as fiction. The best of those who wish to write and paint flee these places. Those who wish merely to succeed stay, and indeed arrive from all points. Even within the borders of the great powers the creative impulse comes not from New York or Paris, but from the provinces. It was no accident that Flaubert stayed in Rouen and Twain in the south; that Cezanne fled to Aix and Byron to Italy.

These very cities – which live off the creativity of the provinces and corrupt all who are drawn into their arms – are the places that Canadians seem obsessed by measuring themselves against. The imagined brilliance of New York, London and Paris is forever before our eyes while we remain indifferent to, for example, the Spanish world, which is alive with real ideas and questions and is, incidentally, the second world market for books.

On top of our search for false relationships, we have laid a second, even more suffocating blanket. The culture of this country – an accurate reflection of the people – is in constant production or is ready to be produced. But it is not allowed to reflect. It is not allowed access to the technical means of reflection; that is to say, to the systems of distribution.

The Americans, the English and the French, despite their vocabulary of cultural superiority, go to great pains to secure their international cultural power through a hearty concentration upon the structures of culture – or ‘entertainment’, as the Americans say. Through this control they sell their own cultural products and therefore their ideas; which in turn sells everything that is a part of their own reflection – everything from their cars to their foreign policy.

The Americans are quite right to perceive their ‘entertainment business’ as an assault force. Culture is the most powerful weapon of any nation. To reduce culture to some sort of arcane middle class activity for those who have the luxuries of high education and spare time is in fact to abdicate control over our entire destiny.


But if our culture is so vibrant, how is it that, despite massive governmental aid, Canadian efforts to make headway in the distribution of our own culture continue to fail and to lose money, while foreign efforts to sell us their cultures (plus a token amount of our own) seem to succeed relatively easily? Why are we so ineffective? So amateurish? The answer to a great extent is that we are struggling within a system created by foreigners and therefore designed to work in their interests. This bias is not apparent in any written rules which could be identified and therefore changed. This bias is endemic to the system itself and therefore invisible to a legislator. Our obsession with specific legislation and specific support programs leads us blindly into a maze where only those who laid out the paths can find their way. The existing system dictates by a thousand unidentifiable signs, by its very breath, by its cadence, exactly which cultural elements will be able to find their way through to the Canadian public. It is worth adding that we are the only democracy in the world to have entrusted its culture delivery systems in this way to outsiders.

The governmental support programs – legislative and financial – which are intended to change this situation, in fact confine us ever more narrowly within our own marginality within our own country. We are increasingly the special case. The delicate flower. The only way to change this is through sweeping – not specific – legislation, which in one radical step would place us and our interests at the centre of our own society, while removing the foreigners to the margins.

But even if it is true that no other democracy except Canada accepts cultural marginality within its own borders, why is it that we need such radical legislation to establish a normal situation? No other country has needed to deal with culture in this manner. The answer is that no other democracy is in our situation: twenty-five million people4 sitting on the border of the century’s most powerful nation and culture. Our situation cannot be compared to others when we search for solutions because no other democracy exists under the kind of cultural pressures which we experience every day. Our solution must be specific to the Canadian situation, but aimed at creating a system not unlike the kind which makes it possible for national cultures to exist in other medium-sized or small democracies.


If we believe that no governmental action will be taken to put Canadians at the centre of their own cultural structure, or if decisions are being taken which we feel will dangerously damage this country, then we are perfectly capable of action and must therefore act. If the bureaucratic mind is so attached to the concept of ‘cultural industries’, why are we, the employees of those industries, so loath to engage in industrial action? We are able, for example, to shit down all the communication systems. Cable systems. Film distribution systems. Book distribution systems. What’s more, we can shut down these systems selectively: blocking foreign interests while allowing Canadian interests to function. Furthermore, we are surrounded by politicians obsessed by image. We can deal with their images in many ways.

We must not be trapped into a bureaucratic frame of mind which makes us believe that our only avenue is the negotiating of ‘deals’ in a ‘professional’ manner with governments and civil servants. It is these deals, these little victories, which have convinced us that the only marginal success is possible. It is this desire to appear professional which makes us afraid to dirty our hands. Is it not remarkable that we are more concerned about our dignity than were the nationalists in the oil industry?

If we believe that our culture is vibrant, then we should not waste time discussing that culture. Instead we should be engaged in action which shows we do actually believe that vibrancy to be real. If we do our job as the reflection of the people, then the people must expect us to stand up and use, in their defence, the talents which make us the creators of their reflection – that is, the talents of public words and public images and public actions.

1. Consider that now (22 years later in 2008) the following Canadian television shows: Little Mosque on the Prairie, Corner Gas, and MVP, which offer some sort of reflection of Canadian life.
2. Susan Sontag and George Steiner come immediately to my mind.
3. The art of the Whitney and the Venice Biennials.
4. In the twenty three years since, the population of Canada has increased to 33 million.

One Response to 08w07:4 John Ralston Saul on Canadian Culture in 1986

  1. Kathleen Molloy says:

    Am I the only Canadian writer who is a hypocrite? I write to promote Canadian culture yet I poke fun at myself for having been brainwashed to pander to the culture policy makers. I write about Canada, about Canadians, about Canadian themes and Canadian challenges and sprinkle in hockey and butter tart references yet I resent my fundamental urge to do so. In my new book “Dining with Death” my Angel of Death is a Cultural Attaché for the Hereafter who squeezes into Sheila Copps’ pantyhose. On account of his collective agreement’s Canadian content stipulations under Article 103, sub article 47, B4, as set out in the Canadian Regulations for Assisted Passings, (CRAP), he can only appear as well known Canadian personalities. Will an American reader ever understand the Canadian references in Dining with Death? I doubt a Texan will chuckle when they get to the part in the story where the immigrant prepares for his Citizenship and Deportation Exam by studying the booklet Canadians are NOT Polite Americans with the accompanying pamphlet What To Do When Confronted by a Separatist. And that’s okay. I’m not attempting to reflect the American reader. I want Canadians to see their own laugh lines in the mirror. Would John Ralston Saul approve?

    Kathleen Molloy, author – Dining with Death

    La Mort au menu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *