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Biography
John Ralston Saul, C.C.

« John Ralston Saul

"Now is the time to take risks with your lives - risks as citizens. Now is the time to get used to being original, to criticizing in a loud voice, to using your imagination for the long term. What is true for you as individuals is true for our country. Each of us and all of us must act in an imaginative, ethical, cutting-edge way."
(John Ralston Saul, addressing students at the University of Calgary.)

"The ethical consideration of ideas, and broad debate, are central to the reality of citizenship and so to a responsible sense of what it means to be Canadian."
(John Ralston Saul)

When John Ralston Saul-an internationally acclaimed novelist and essayist-entered Rideau Hall, he found a new challenge in his quest to understand the historical context and to promote the evolving nature of civic culture in Canada. Independently and alongside his wife, Adrienne Clarkson, he pursued an ambitious program of viceregal initiatives. He wanted everything about Rideau Hall and its activities to be more Northern in flavour, more robustly Canadian, and more richly inclusive.

John Ralston Saul was born on June 19, 1947 in Ottawa. His father was Colonel William Saul, a D-Day veteran whose ongoing military career saw his British war bride, Beryl, and their family living on bases across the country. Mr. Saul, one of three sons, was educated in public schools in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario before receiving a B.A. in History and Political Science at McGill University. He then pursued his doctoral degree at King's College of the University of London, completing his Ph.D. thesis on the modernization of France in 1972. He founded and managed a European investment firm before returning home to work as special assistant to the founding chairman of Petro Canada in the late 1970s.

The Writer. By this time, Mr. Saul was getting considerable attention for his writing. His first novel, The Birds of Prey, written and published first in French, became an international bestseller in 1977. The final novel in the Field Trilogy that followed, The Paradise Eaters, won the prestigious Italian Premio Letterario Internazionale. His most recent fiction, again written in French, was the novel De si bons Américains (1994).

By the 1990s, John Ralston Saul was primarily working as an essayist. His Voltaire's Bastards, published in 1992, was a widely read introduction to his views on history and political philosophy. Following the release of The Doubter's Companion (1994), Mr. Saul delivered the 1995 Massey Lectures, Canada's pre-eminent public speaking series, and the resulting book, The Unconscious Civilization, won the Governor General's Literary Award for non-fiction as well as other major prizes. His study of Canadian identity and history, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, has continued its influence since its 1997 release. He has received widespread praise as a visionary whose work offers "a real portrait of our planet", whose public stance is that of "the intellectual as a man of the world". He was made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France in 1996.

The Activist. When John Ralston Saul moved into Rideau Hall, he became the official patron of the Canadian chapter of PEN, the organization that upholds freedom of speech for writers around the world. However, he had already been long involved with PEN, including years as its secretary, vice-president and president. Fluently bilingual, he has also been an advocate for bilingual education as a fundamental aspect of Canadian life. In 1996, he and a small group of friends founded Le Français pour l'Avenir / French for the Future, a national network of support for French immersion and first-language French programs outside Quebec. By 2005, its video-linked conferences were taking place in 21 cities across Canada.

"Two for the price of one." When Adrienne Clarkson became governor general in October 1999, she and John Ralston Saul entered Rideau Hall as a celebrated and accomplished couple. (Madame Clarkson, famous as a broadcaster and cultural commentator, is the only governor general to have been an Officer of the Order of Canada before her installation.) Mr. Saul intended to make his viceregal tenure a busy, productive and engaged one. Le Français pour l'Avenir / French for the Future grew rapidly throughout the mandate as he met immersion students, staff and parents everywhere he went. In 2000, in collaboration with the Dominion Institute, John Ralston Saul founded the LaFontaine/Baldwin Symposium and gave its first annual lecture. A tribute to the founding fathers of political reform in Canada, the Symposium explores the history and destiny of our democracy. Mr. Saul's writing career was slowed by his eager attention to matters viceregal, but he had two books published during the mandate: On Equilibrium, some ethical considerations of the public good (2001), and The Collapse of Globalism, a critique of the international financial system (2005).

"Who is not at the table?" John Ralston Saul, through his patronage and active involvement, was determined to draw attention to those on the margins and to the societal failures that kept them there. He frequently visited the homeless, the alienated, and the handicapped, and he reported what he had seen in some of the country's most distinguished forums. He prompted meetings of PEN at Foreign Affairs Canada and at Rideau Hall which resulted in the creation of the Writers in Exile network, which has given 25 foreign writers persecuted at home a productive refuge in various Canadian cities.

A Love for the North. Travelling widely, both independently and with the Governor General, John Ralston Saul shared community feasts in dozens of Northern and Aboriginal communities, many of which had never received a viceregal visit. A profound affection for the North, dating back to the 1970s, led him to frequent expeditions out on the land, including a canoe expedition along the Yukon's Snake River and a winter trip out of Pond Inlet with two rangers.

Canadianization: A Great Salute. All members of the Canadian Forces family, especially veterans, were a particular focus of John Ralston Saul's interest and gratitude. He accompanied the Governor General, whose father was also a World War II veteran, on yearly holiday visits to servicemen and women in Kosovo and Bosnia, on board ships in the Persian Gulf, and twice to Kabul, Afghanistan. There, he was the first member of a viceregal couple to go on active patrol with soldiers in a war zone. In Canada and all across Europe, he and the Governor General met with wounded Canadian soldiers and the families of the fallen, and shared the stories and the griefs of veterans of Canada's wars. Most notably, Mr. Saul met and travelled with hundreds of veterans during the 60th anniversary commemorations of the last days of the Second World War.

"No idea too big, no detail too small!" This was how a senior Rideau Hall staffer characterized John Ralston Saul's commitment to the continued "Canadianization" of Rideau Hall. Mr. Saul celebrated the richness of its traditions, yet insisted on a modern and progressive approach at Government House. Classical and contemporary Canadian art and furnishings-and even indigenous flowers and plants-became more accessible to approximately 200,000 annual visitors to the property. He was responsible for the development of the roundabout piazza at the Sussex Drive entrance, the Ambassador's Court garden and its monument to the geography of the Canadian Shield, and the first woodland garden at Rideau Hall. Orchards, native Canadian flowers and even a sample vineyard were introduced, and the trees planted by international heads of State were identified.

Mr. Saul, an avid wine connoisseur, made the Rideau Hall wine cellar an all Canadian affair during his residence. Canadian wines were served at all official functions and even, remarkably, at State dinners offered in Iceland and Finland. He also encouraged the kitchen's focus on the fish, meat, produce and culinary specialties of every region of the country. Many of the vegetables were grown on the grounds, including herbs from a distinctive new garden. At the last Order of Canada dinner during his tenure, Mr. Saul displayed the porcelain "Maple Leaf Service" that he had commissioned and helped to design along with the artist, Bill Reddick.

Citizenship and Democracy. John Ralston Saul has been widely praised for his spirited defence of public education, before and especially during his time at Rideau Hall. "Any weakening of universal public education can only be a weakening of democracy," he repeatedly insisted. He encouraged universities to build their capacity for bilingual education, and the mounting debts of post-secondary students moved him to argue for the extension of public education past the secondary school level. In dozens of public lectures and panel discussions, John Ralston Saul urged Canadians to acquire a deeper understanding of the ideals of citizenship and to put them into wider practice. He quoted, over and over, from Louis-Hyppolite LaFontaine's 1840 Address to the Electors of Terrebonne, which Mr. Saul termed "the cornerstone document of modern Canada". LaFontaine called "social equality…the distinctive characteristic" of the country, and said, "No privileged caste can exist in Canada beyond and above the mass of its inhabitants."

International Regard. In addition to the many honorary degrees and other awards received from institutions in Canada and around the world, a remarkable honour came to John Ralston Saul in 2004. On the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great poet and activist, Mr. Saul received the Pablo Neruda International Medal of Honour from the Chilean government, the only Canadian to be so recognized.

Back Home in Toronto. As the Governor General's mandate ended in September 2005, one of the couple's last visits was to Toronto. Here, two engagements reflected the themes of inclusion and of true Canadian citizenship that so informed John Ralston Saul's service at Rideau Hall. In one of the city's most troubled neighbourhoods, he spoke at the opening of a new youth resource centre, encouraging the youth to find their own way to participate in the life of their city and their nation. Two days later, in the historic Sharon Temple, he spoke about the growth of our democracy. Calling Canada "the only intellectually constructed nation in the western world", founded on the ideals of "peace, public welfare and good government", Mr. Saul traced our civic evolution and the role played in it by that historic building.

Days later, moments after the investiture of Michaëlle Jean as Canada's 27th governor general, John Ralston Saul and Adrienne Clarkson got in their car and drove back to their home in Toronto, private - but profoundly engaged - citizens once again.

Updated: 2009-04-30
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