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75th Annual Summer Conference, August 10–13, 2006

Closing Keynote Address

John Ralston Saul

Summary by Vaneet Sangha

The closing address began with the last of the Couchiching reflection videos introduced by incoming Couchiching president Helen Walsh.

Pamela Wallin


Pamela Wallin began by providing a short reflection on the morning panelists and their discussion of the Canadian identity. She reflected on the idea of a progress in Canadian identity and spoke of the challenges we face as Canadians with new threats to our security and global forces that have forced us to reevaluate our sense of self as a nation. She stated that it is more important today than at any other time to have a collective sense of identity and a national consensus on how we define ourselves. She moved on to provide a brief biography of John Ralston Saul and to speak of his challenge to the assertion that Canada is a soft country. Ms. Wallin described Mr Saul’s work as the chronicles of our story as Canadians, documenting our perceptions, our consciousness stating, "today he will harness the forces he has long written about."

John Ralston Saul


Mr. Saul began his discussion with a reflection on his previous participation at the Couchiching conference and his memories of Eric Koch. He discussed his recent stay on Georgian Bay in a state of complete wilderness and related this to the notion of progress stating "we don’t even know that there are any crises unless we turn on the wind-up radio. This is a funny little reminder of other ways of thinking about progress and a realization that we are living in a much more progressive manner but now without any real control over it." Saul argued that we have come to confuse the notions of reason and utilitarianism, ideas confused with methodology, thinking with administration. These fundamental confusions have led us also to become confused about the very definition of progress and to find ourselves in a world in which we are trying to find big solutions to big problems. Rather than searching for these large, broad solutions Saul argues that often it is the simplest, smallest solutions combined with one another that can create real progress. We have to learn to solve specific problems in specific ways without returning to the rhetoric of big problem, big solution. This, Saul argues, is the true distinction between the real ideas of progress and the false notions of progress. Mr. Saul continued by discussing our misconceptions of what is evidence of progress within Western civilizations. Technology, he states, is often conceived of as progress but it is not. Instead, technology is a means or support for progress but it does not always lead to it. Technology merely provides methodology and, therefore, cannot be progress.

  • Technology has no content; it only contains methodology so therefore cannot be progress itself because it can be used for various reasons that are not progressive…the use of the counting machines for the Nazis incarcerating the Jews.
  • The numbers dying do not actually include the mass murders…when considering life expectancy…we only do the numbers of the beneficiaries of technological innovation.
  • What is it worth watching out for is to know if you are going forward or backward…water...the decline of Rome parallelled the decline of the water systems…same can be seen in Egypt.
  • Evian…the most polluted water in world but still something we carry…water bottles are actually a reflection of a child’s blanket…it is the insecurities and fears that you have …non-toilet trained population…pollute the water to create the agriculture etc…admitting you are going to live with your own indiscipline.
  • We are 2/3rd down the slope the way Rome and Islamic civilizations were in their road to decline.
  • We will progress by killing fewer of each of us…ways of tolerating the "other"…are we going forward or are we going backward…U.S. fell back into the idea of executing people…much like the water bottle problem…are we moving forward or are we moving backward?

The Other

  • If you are able to imagine the other than you are able to live with the other.
  • You are only worrying about yourself and not about those around you because you are not considering the other but instead have chosen to live without the other.
  • The progressive society is one that is able to accommodate and welcome the other…identify the problems and deal with the problems...but without imagining the other one cannot come up with progressive policies to make us be able to live better together…if you can’t imagine the other, than the other is not real.
  • You have to imagine the effect on the other.
  • Why was the law written badly, why was it written in that way…there was no relationship between our progressive aspirations and the reality of what actually happened.
  • Western civilization, and Canada very much in particular, has talked itself into a state where we are almost in a position to not be able to do anything. We have become an inactive civilization…we run ourselves like selfish children who can only do something when it gets us really angry...the description of a dysfunctional society…whereby we are unable to face our problems…as a country we are floating…we have driven ourselves into this state…Western civilization has reached a state of being unable to deal with our real problems because on one end we are very satisfied whilst on the other we are highly insecure.
  • We are unable to actually deal with the real problems…the reality and real necessities of progress…we have a lot of distractions used to distract us from our state of despair.
  • The heart of our problem is the growing and inseparable confusion between the social contract and commercial contract…they are inextricably confused. The social contract is not a commercial contract yet they are so drastically confused. That confusion lies at our inability to be deal with real needs and therefore progress.
  • Further away from the idea that what we do is intentional…all reactive and defensive…no intellect…no intention…intentionality is looked down upon…everything is now inevitable…we are just running to keep. We do not recognize that we are doing it on purpose..invisible hands…market romanticism…the notion that we have to keep up while actually we are unwilling to recognize that we are creating and controlling these forces that we are allowing to control ourselves. We are allowing it to become the core of our civilization…it is not a characteristic civilization…the worship of is a way out of thinking and consciousness…it is a barbaric idea that speed should be part of civilizations consciousness.
  • Thanks to speed the last few years have given us global warming, mad cows…because we have no time to think of the consequences…we have no is only now when we take the time to reflect upon it…Toronto harbor front example.
  • We have personal optimism while we have a great deal of pessimism about the society…things are happening yet we never draw back and look at strategic ways to change things. We have no capacity to look beyond the black and white…still working in the oldest of philosophical reflective modes…black or white…wrong or right. We do not believe that we can actually solve real problems and therefore we are instead fixating on false problems.
  • Romanticism, ideology has come to take a central place in our world once again.
  • Arguing against Friedman’s notion of the world is flat…stating his entire premise is wrong "the world is a sharp as a knife and if you are not careful you will fall right off."
  • We are running so far ahead of the policies that we actually have in place and in spite of this there is a growing loss of the idea that Canada is an intentional place that has been…Canada is the number one intentional…constructed nation state while that idea has been lost...Canada is the only country that is intellectually composed...yet here we are talking as though there is nothing that we can do and that the forces of the world are too much…we cannot consciously drive our decisions…we are the only ones of the 20 Western countries have this constant hopelessness, non-intentionality and refusal to see that progress can actually come out of a country such as this.
  • Shelters are filled with men and women who go to the office in the morning because their salaries are so low that they cannot afford to pay the rent...a sizeable number of people going to food banks are single mothers and children…it doesn’t have to be a matter of charity…it is can be done very easily.
  • Healthcare: 50% of the long waits has to do with a shortage of doctors. Why can we not increase the residency spots…a refusal to come up with a real solution to the problem because they have already allocated resources in a linear manner. The waiting lines are created by an unwillingness to deal with a very specific problem with a specific solution. You have the right to make mistakes. It is about a profession protecting itself and not about the community. What prevents us from putting the percentage of resources to deal with prevention from 1% up. We have an incapacity to act.
  • A sign of corruption and backward movement that exists all throughout Western society and we are unable to make this a serious debate. Non-functioning civilization. "French for the future"…there are not enough French teachers because they simply won’t train them and we have a real problem that they just are unwilling to look at.
  • A society that has difficulty acting fear of losing Canadian sovereignty in the north has made it so that we are unable to deal with the problem of land claims…irrational fears leading to an inability to make a decision when the decision is very easily made and in fact already made.
  • Thought, imagination and a certain type of consciousness is what we have lost as a civilization and especially as Canadians.
  • We talk about this as though we are no longer the old Canada. We have convinced ourselves we are an industrialized nation when we are still actually relying upon commodities…without which we would just be another third world nation.
  • Why can we not have a serious conversation about ownership? The Australian government talks about it…it’s about intentionality because we have fallen into utilitarianism romanticism.


  • The only way to get rid of the debt was to rip it up…they had to believe that what mattered was the contracts…linear mattered delusions…G8 is only now beginning to accept this after 25 years meanwhile countries being destroyed and lost and progress was not being made.
  • We are so locked into technology that we cannot solve our problems.
  • We pretend today that we cannot afford anything when we really are just unwilling to reflect on what progress is. Instead we are caught up in linear modes of problem solving that we feel hopeless in the face of the world’s problems.
  • We feel as though progress requires us to act in a managerial manner that requires us to respect intellectual property…we do not need to respect intellectual property when people are dying…patent law cannot and should not trump life and today it is. This is partly because the pharmaceutical companies spend more money on PR than they do on research.
  • There is a confusion between rights and charity and the whole concept that people’s lives should be changed on the basis of charity rather than on rights. We should be providing people with the rights to save their own lives and foster progress rather than charity to sustain their present states.

Am I being too pessimistic?

  • It is better than utilitarian romanticism and optimism is all about being conscious…progress is about doing real things intentionally.
  • Who you are, where you are and what these real things are that can be accomplished in real strategic change.
  • Strategic change for improvement.
  • Everything that happens for real progress is consciousness with knowing who you are where you are with an ethical sense at the core which is an understanding of the other.


What makes us the way we are? Unintentional, smug on one hand while victimized on the other? Why can we not act?

This was a miserable poverty-stricken colony in the north and more people left Canada than came. They were fortunate because U.S. had a great space, while Canada could not even produce wheat in the beginning. This is a country that was and is naturally poor and our only real riches are commodities and that is catastrophic in terms of middle class democracy. Commodities leading to a few rich and a some very poor. Canadians had no common group, all feeling as though they had lost…a country of losers in a sense. From the beginning we built ourselves intentionally into a middle class country. Elites have always been there but they have always had a pessimistic view of the country, driving us to conscription in the world war, the other side of Canada, the pessimistic, a perfect example of why the country doesn’t work because of this elite that was always very passive. They said it was about being courageous and opening our borders when actually it was about being passive again, that is our contradiction. We have bought into the intellectual passive argument that we are small and weak and if you do not think that way you are a nationalist.

But this uniqueness you describe, attempt to describe ourselves compared to the U.S?

When our history was rewritten, they redid the entire thing which was that we did it because of the U.S. and the British made us do it. We are out of phase with our own reality and then we invent these stories about ourselves that are not true but that we still keep gripping onto. There is no intellectual discussion in Canada in what we do and who we are.

Do we have philosophers who are actively involved in government? So that these ideas can actually become conceptualized?

Universities are very driven to mediocrity, we have to get the university professors down on the ground while their departments are forcing them to be stuck within their departments. It is not a great calling, government making it very difficult to come in and out. The real consequences of it has been to isolate government. Now nobody can move, there is no mechanism for it, for people going in and out. Academics are confined to their schools and departments and they are not encouraged to come outside.

The definition of progress "as people knowing how to live together" — can we agree that progress cannot happen without great inequalities?

The role of men as being part of the way in which our current problem is created and yet you do not discuss how women can be part of the solution? Could you discuss the strategic lack of coherence and institutionalized indecision?

In many ways women were robbed, and the single biggest injection into our economy has been almost doubling our workforce through incorporating women. It did not lead to more growth, however, meaning we inflated the real value brought to the economy brought by women. This is because they did not address it, because we did not invest that growth into our economy and therefore we lost the benefits that could have stemmed from that growth and the growth itself. There is little consideration of the lives of women and therefore we continue to waste the resources of women in the labor force, especially in professional fields.

Progress is not abstract, it is about who you are and where you live and you as a result of knowing your history and realizing we are not accidental but intentional you look for strategic changes. If we can all bring ourselves to think consciously about the needs that would move us forward…stop saying we are a new country, we are nice, we have a small population, that we are lucky other people are buying our companies, that is the United States’ fault…stop all of that and start talking about the reality of your country and your lives and I think we can make the changes we need to make.

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