His Excellency John Ralston Saul
Address Made Upon the Conferral
of an Honorary Degree (Honoris Causa)
Herzen State Pedagogical University
St. Petersburg (Russia), Monday, September 29, 2003
We are here beneath the star of Alexander Herzen. I have to admit that,
whenever I receive an honour, a phrase of Herzen's goes through my mind; a phrase
he used to warn his reformer friends living in exile. "We believe we are
the doctors. In fact we're the disease".
We hope we aren't. But it is a clear signal to those who think they have
the solutions, worse still, are certain they have the solutions. Sometimes
I find myself thinking that Western civilization does little more than swing
wildly from one certainty to another, as if we are afraid of uncertainty.
I would say – somewhat the way someone else said – that certainty is the opiate
of the West. Ideologies are the opiates of the West. And yet the
very idea of civilization is incertitude – doubt. The very idea of the
human being as human is the question, not the answer.
These ideologies come in every disguise. What they have in common is
that they always represent the solution – the corrective – to the preceding
ideology. Today the omnipresent corrective around the world is commerce.
Of course commerce is good. It is essential. It is one of the elements
which makes the world turn.
But – but, it is not the solution. Harold Innis, the great Canadian thinker,
who was the first to create the modern philosophy of communications – he was
the spiritual father of Marshal McLuhan – said: "Materialism is the auxiliary
doctrine of every tyranny."
What you will always notice about the myriad of ideologies which descend one
after the other on the west is that certitude means an obsession with the future.
The past is not simply rejected. It becomes unreal. Memory dies.
Interestingly enough, Herzen was a great critic of history as an advancing certainty.
Yesterday we were in Salekhard, where we had a chance to meet and to listen
to members of the Nenet and the Hanti-Mansi Peoples. We also experienced
the exact opposite of that idea of history as a certainty when we were taken
to Camp 501, a construction camp, outside of Salekhard. Everyone who came
with us from Salekhard spoke of the importance of remembering; of learning by
remembering. It was a generous gesture they made in taking us to that
camp. It was one of those experiences by which we all learn. We
are all thrown into uncertainty. Our memories, of even our own personal
failures, are brought back to us in such a place.
* * *
This university works in an area which could be described as the essence of
uncertainty; that of multilingualism. That means you function within the
idea that a civilization can function, can exist, can blossom thanks to having
more than one culture. This is something that Canada and Russia share.
The central idea is not that those cultures within our nations sit side by
side, joined only by administrative structures. That approach belongs
to the 19th century certitude of nations as monolithic beings; an
idea which led to wars and racism. Both of our societies are now based
upon an idea that citizens can be several things at once. Those who organize
the structures of nation-states are often uncomfortable with this idea of the
multi-personality of each citizen. In the world of structure and administration,
the old monolithic certainties of the 19th century are still strong.
Why? Because it is easier to administer something centralized and linear.
It is difficult to manage something which is more than one thing at once.
Administrators may be uncomfortable with this complexity. Citizens are
very comfortable with it, if we are allowed to treat complexity as a positive.
We are energized by the liberty that comes with more than one personality.
In this university, you work with the minority languages of Russia .
We have in our delegation the voices of the languages of Canada . As you
know, we are an officially bilingual country. In varying ways we have
been bilingual since 1774. This has had many ups and downs. Moments,
periods which we would rather forget. Yet, again, it is essential to remember
There have also been moments and periods which have been exciting, experimental.
The first semi-democratic constitution of Canada came in 1792 and it was on
a multi-religious, bilingual model. That, at a time when Britain , the
colonial power, banned all but Anglican believers from public office.
And the last 30 years have seen a remarkable reaffirmation of French, thanks
to federal and provincial laws and programs. The smaller francophone minorities
outside of Quebec still face the challenge of assimilation among their young
because a percentage choose english. At the same time, the school systems
and cultural institutions of these minorities are getting stronger and stronger.
Curiously, in this time of globalization, they have never been so strong.
They are a remarkable counter indication to the idea that global forces dictate
all and that everything is centered on commerce. These communities are
making a serious comeback. The Acadians in Atlantic Canada are the leaders
in this rebuilding process.
Again, historical progress is not an inevitable, one-way road. Directions
change. We all know this – except when ideologies cause us to deny reality.
Those of us who read Tolstoy know that history is not a one-way street.
The other fascinating element is that over the last 30 years, through what
we call French Immersion Education, we have changed the linguistic skills of
our Anglophone population. Not enough. But we have gone from a few
thousand bilingual Anglophones to 3.5 million in three decades. This has
allowed us to make some sense of our multi-personality society.
* * *
The most fascinating and challenging facet of language in Canada revolves around
aboriginal languages. We have 12 language families made up of 53 sub-families.
A handful of these are doing well or reasonably well – Cree, Inuktitut, Dene,
for example. But most are under serious threat. In our delegation
we have seven key 1st Nations leaders who know a great deal about
Again we have had very bad moments: In the past, religious schools (called
residential schools; that is, boarding schools) banned the use of aboriginal
languages. That is finished. Over the last 20 years aboriginals
have begun putting in place the structures, institutions and curricula needed
to teach and bring new life to these languages.
I'd like to finish with five arguments.
First. It is not a question of saving languages. It is not a question
of charity. These aboriginal languages are an integral part of the complexity
of our society. Some would argue that we can simply translate their content
into English and French. Perhaps. But that's not the point.
These languages are still living languages. They are also doors which
open into our collective memory, our collective unconscious. When we lose a
language, a door closes. If we allow these doors to close, we lose part
of our memory.
I don't speak Mohawk. But Mohawk is part of the texture of my culture.
To lose Mohawk, for example, would be to lose a point-of-view. To lose
a living memory. A living imagination.
To lose a language is to slip towards a more monolithic civilization.
Second. The multiplicity of languages in Canada – and I would imagine
in Russia – creates uncertainty. That is, multi-linguism inside a society,
if treated positively, will become a motor of civilization. A motor of
the imagination – look at your creative writing over the last 150 years.
Look at ours over the last 30 years.
Third. This uncertainty keeps our language more oral than the language
of mono-linguistic cultures. Look at Germans struggling with High and
Low German. Look at the French twisting themselves into knots over grammar,
while in Canada, French is freer. Orality is a great counterweight to
the destructive forces of scholasticism – what Herzen called "the pedantic specialists
who in their ivory towers write erudite books about erudite books."
Fourth. My wife and I are on a circumpolar state visit. Russia
is the first of six countries. Why are we doing this with aboriginal leaders,
writers, filmmakers and intellectuals – 26 of them? Because we must increase
our own sense of the multiplicity of our cultural imagination.
And we must increase the understanding that others have of our northerners.
Yes, Western Europe is important. Yes, the United States is important.
But, yes, the north is important. And we have done less, formally, about
our Northern sense of ourselves and our northern relationships than about the
other two. Yet the North is the reality of our cultures. Its geography,
its climate, its resulting attitudes towards space and isolation and imagination
are fundamentally northern. Not western. Glen Gould, the great pianist
from Toronto, said – "the value of life comes from solitude." Those words
could have come from Pasternak or Lermontov.
There is one new element which could be important for all of us: a new,
"virtual" university now joins the 6 countries of the North. The University
of the Arctic. I hope you are looking at this experiment, among other
things, in multi-linguism. It is an exciting experiment. Our three
northern colleges are fully engaged.
I only hope that we in Canada will soon wake up and do what is necessary:
that is, convert these three colleges into a university of the north with three
colleges; and then use that university as the centre of northern education and
research; set up Northern Research Chairs which are actually set in the North.
Finally, what we all know in the north is that our ecology is fragile.
As are our minority languages. And complexity, like uncertainty, is also
fragility. That is all part of our northern reality.
There is a wonderful Haida proverb – the Haida are a 1st Nation
People living on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the north-west coast of Canada.
"The world is as sharp as a knife. If you don't watch out, you'll fall
We share that. We share the sense that uncertainly and complexity are
fragile. In the north – embraced by this fragility – we must be more conscious
of our actions. Few things are automatic. But then consciousness
is the most moving manifestation of life on the cutting edge of the world.
We like that. We're used to it.