John Ralston Saul speaks about Canada as ‘middle power’

Marika Kemeny, Glendon’s public relations and communications advisor, sent the following article to YFile about the recent visit of John Ralston Saul to York’s Glendon campus.

What are the means available to a middle power to be heard, recognized and valued in a world dominated by its neighbour, the most powerful imperial presence on the international scene today? That was the fascinating and timely question addressed by prestigious essayist and novelist John Ralston Saul at the annual John Holmes Lecture on Feb. 25, at York’s Glendon College. Saul, husband of Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, spoke about “Projecting a Middle Power into an Imperial World”.

Left: John Ralston Saul; all photos of Saul and event by Geoff George 

Welcomed by Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts, Saul was introduced by Glendon international studies Professor Stanislav Kirschbaum, who reviewed the history of the lecture and the man who inspired it: the late John W. Holmes, O.C., Canadian diplomat, writer, administrator, and professor of International Relations at Glendon College from 1971 to 1981.

Holmes was a tireless promoter of Canada at home and abroad, in political, diplomatic and educational circles. It was most appropriate, therefore, that Saul should choose this venue to explore the means of promoting Canada in ways that Holmes would have identified with and approved of.

Right: Some of the audience members listening to Saul

In a wonderfully direct and clear style, flowing effortlessly between English and French, Saul put forth arguments for a country like Canada being able to make a difference, and for having an opportunity to develop a cultural and political image which is modern, valued and admired by the rest of the world.

“With the creation of the United Nations, Canada moved out of the sidelines,” said Saul. “We became a middle power, instead of an unimportant one.” According to Saul, Canada has one of the best-educated and most experienced armed forces in the world today, experienced in much more complex and sophisticated fields than just warfare: peace-keeping, engineering, medical help, education, helping those in need to create structures in their society which enable them to function. He observed that Canadians “keep peace self-confidently, by meeting and talking to people, rather than by pointing weapons at them. We are not a colonial nation.”

Right: Saul chatting with members of the audience

Saul stated that the 1984 government debate on creating a Canadian identity – our image outside the country – resulted in the conviction that we can best gain the attention of the world by continuously demonstrating what makes us different and successful. Three important elements in this image are our approach to immigration, citizenship and federalism – areas in which we are at the forefront globally. Saul also pointed to other factors which demonstrate our success: our post-modernism, our non-monolithic society, our complexity as a nation and our country in continued evolution, “Canada as a continued experiment”.

Saul described the federal government’s 1998 decision to redefine the format and the objectives of the official state visit. It was reformulated to be “a device to present our country abroad” through delegations of leading figures: academics, artists, environmentalists, writers, poets, the best and most creative minds that the country produces. “This kind of effort provides great momentum, opens doors and gives [unparalleled] opportunities to the representatives of Canada who are already on location”.

Saul affirmed the notion that a formal state visit, such as those undertaken by Governor General Clarkson, is the result of government policy, rather than a private choice on her part. While he confirmed that she has great impact on the details of such events, ultimately the choice is made and approved by the government. His explanation, that these visits create important links and put forward a public face for Canada as a place of great intellectual and cultural activity, ferment and creativity and are, therefore, of inestimable diplomatic value, found a very favourable response among those in the audience. Saul managed to put out this public defence for the Governor General’s actions, while making a smooth and logical connection to the purpose of the Holmes lectures – to create a Canadian cultural identity, among our neighbours, the northern countries, and the rest of the world.

He made another suggestion for promoting recognition of a positive Canadian identity abroad – one that is directly linked to universities and students. Saul stated that there was a need to establish a national policy on international student exchanges, rather than the current ad hoc method. Canadian students studying abroad, and foreign students coming to Canada, are some of the best ways to inform the world of who we are and what we have achieved, he said.

Left: Stanislav Kirschbaum

In his introductory remarks, Kirschbaum provided some personal details about the origin of this lecture series, and about Holmes as a professor and a human being. “It is 15 years ago, in 1989, that my late colleague and dear friend, Edward Appathurai, former [Glendon] Principal Albert Tucker, and three Glendon graduates came together to launch this annual lecture series on public affairs and current events in memory of…John W. Holmes, who had died the previous year.”

Left: Kenneth McRoberts

The three alumni, Jim Dow, Marshall Leslie, and Martin Shadwick, had attended Holmes’ course on Canadian foreign and defence policy, which was very popular, because Holmes was not only “very knowledgeable about the subject, [but also] a very witty and interesting man.” Holmes occasionally admonished students in his class “that their interpretation of an event was simply wrong. He generally added with a smile: ‘You see, I was there!’, a comment that made it impossible to argue around the error.”

Kirschbaum added that “John Ralston Saul was well known in Canadian public life long before he became the spouse of our Governor General…. While many define him as a man of letters, engaged public intellectual and best-selling author, and I certainly agree with them, I will allow myself, based on his novels and essays, to define him not only as a legitimate intellectual child of [Voltaire], but also as a Renaissance man. I do not know how…Voltaire would have felt to be ascribed the illegitimate paternity of the political philosophy of our modern world that our speaker so vividly presents in Voltaire’s Bastards – the Dictatorship of Reason in the West, but I suspect that he would have applauded vigorously the need to question and criticize, which is what our speaker does in his book with such intellectual depth and logical clarity. “

Glendon’s largest public space, its dining hall resplendent with colourful flags and filled to overflowing with an audience of about 400, was the ideal place for Saul to present his ideas on the importance of Canada’s public face and international stature. He praised the college and its principal for their continued dedication to the bilingualism and the recognized excellence of the education this institution provides. He encouraged McRoberts to continue his efforts in establishing a bilingual school of public affairs at Glendon – an institution which would be the best qualified in the country to produce the top diplomats, educators and individuals in public service which Glendon’s first principal, Escott Reid, envisioned nearly 40 years ago.

For more information on John Ralston Saul, check his Web site.