Listen to the North: Cramming Northerners' Needs into a Southern Model Just Isn't Working

By Saul, John Ralston | Literary Review of Canada, October 2009 | Go to article overview
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Listen to the North: Cramming Northerners' Needs into a Southern Model Just Isn't Working

Saul, John Ralston, Literary Review of Canada

SOMETIMES WE UNDERSTAND EVENTS IN our lives immediately. Sometimes it takes decades. I have gradually realized over the last year that my view of Canada, indeed my view of how my own life could or should be lived, was radically transformed late in the winter of 1976 on my first trip to the Arctic. I was 29, fresh from seven years in France, first writing my PhD, then running a small investment firm in Paris. Those are experiences that produce a southern, urban, European-oriented self-confidence, which could also be described as the attitude of a classic colonial Canadian.

I travelled north with Maurice Strong, the founding chair and CEO of Petro-Canada. It had begun operations on the first of January that year. Maurice was its first employee. As his assistant, I was the second and so doubled the size of the national oil company. It was a Crown corporation and had inherited the shares the government held in some of the private companies exploring for oil and gas in the High Arctic islands. The government had financed some of these risky ventures or rescued them. And so we were going north to look over our property; that is, the people's property.

On our way to the High Arctic islands, we flew into Inuvik--then an oil and gas boom town--on the delta of the Mackenzie River where it flowed into the Arctic Ocean. The first meeting Maurice had organized was with the local hunters and trappers associations. I believe they represented the Inuit, the Dene and the Gwich'in. I went into the room filled with goodwill, thanks to my urban, southern, western views--in other words, I was out to lunch. An hour and a half later I walked out in a state of deep confusion. It seemed that there was another way of looking at society, another way of looking at the land, at human relationships, at the relationship between society and the land.

This other view was not necessarily to the left or the right, for or against oil exploration or other forms of development. This was a different philosophy, a Canadian philosophy, not derivative of the South or the West. It existed outside of those rational structures of thought that aim to separate humans from everything else in order to raise us to a privileged position in which our interests trump those of the place in which we exist. Whatever the advantages of this approach, we are now faced with unintended outcomes such as climate change. This other philosophy, when I first heard it applied in Inuvik, is just as interested in human well-being, but sees it in a context integrated with the place. And so these hunters were asking tough questions about the broader, longer-term impacts of each narrow southern-style proposal for what we thought of as progress.


In those days, you could get through school and university, get a PhD and live an intellectually active life in Canada without anyone mentioning this more integrated, in many ways more modern, way of thinking. Today this would not be so easily possible. And yet what people in the South do know today will still have been delivered to them in southern, western forms. You could say that northern ideas are still so deformed by southern intellectual and political systems that the situation is almost worse. There is now an assertion of understanding and sympathy so constructed on the western model that we are protected against deep confusion; in other words, we are protected from the possibility of listening and understanding.

Ever since 1976, I have gone north as often as I can. This year those of us who organize the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture with the Institute for Canadian Citizenship held it in Iqaluit. The Inuit leader Siila Watt-Cloutier spoke about the North and about Canada as a whole as seen from a northerner's point of view (a transcript is available on the ICC's website at And that really is the point. The key to Canada as a northern or Arctic or circumpolar nation is the people of the North.

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Listen to the North: Cramming Northerners' Needs into a Southern Model Just Isn't Working


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