The cinema at the Bookshelf was filled to capacity with book lovers Saturday afternoon for a discussion between two of Canada’s most celebrated and outspoken writers on indigenous issues, Tom King and John Ralston Saul.
“Tom and I are fundamentally different because he is a pessimistic optimist and I am an optimistic pessimist,” said Saul.
“That’s my theory.” King was quick to respond with characteristic humour.
“What that means is, when I wake up in the morning I know nothing is going to get better but I start to write in the hopes that it might,” said King. “John wakes up in the morning happy as a pig in mud and stays that way all day.”
That playful ribbing set the tone for a back and forth exchange of witticisms, criticisms, observations and instigation.
The discussion was one of a number of presentations Saturday during the second annual Canadian Author’s For Independent Bookstores Day. The day-long event focused this year on the literary contribution of First Nations, Metis and Inuit authors and their allies.
Event organizers, Barb Minett and Carol Tyler invited 16 indigenous storytellers and artists to celebrate their stories and traditions.
“If you look at the way indigenous education was done traditionally, story telling through song, writing and painting was an incredibly important part of the health of the village as a whole,” said Tyler. “The bookstore is a place of story telling shared with people of all ages.”
King and Saul have both written prolifically on the historical and cultural influence of indigenous communities on our national identity.
Material from their latest books, Inconvenient Indian by King and The Comeback, by Saul provided context for their cautiously hopeful discussion about the future of indigenous culture and the role of independent bookstores.
“Independent bookstores, as far as I am concerned, are critical,” said King. “I am surprised independent bookstores aren’t doing better because they are the only ones that know about books.”
He said independent bookstores have been instrumental in promoting the work of native writers.
“Certainly the volume of material by native writers has just exploded,” said King. “When I was teaching literature classes back in the early 70s there were three writers that I used over and over again. Since then it has been, not only written work but much of the oral work, which is good to see. In my deep pessimism that’s a little ray of hope.”
“We are all treaty people,” was the theme of the day but Saul cited a number of examples of how successive governments throughout Canadian history have suppressed native culture, violated treaties and ignored Supreme Court decisions that upheld native rights.
“Some people will say that the bad times started as soon as the Europeans started arriving,” said Saul. “Others will argue that it didn’t start right away and I have argued that it worked pretty well, thanks to the generosity of indigenous people for quite a long time. Then we spent about 100 to 150 years completely denying the help, the influence, the role, the treaties, everything.”
He said the Idle No More movement reflects the aspirations of a new generation frustrated with the way things have gone and empowered by a new awareness of their rights and traditions.
“They were in essence provoked by a series of actions by the Harper government and those omnibus bills,” he said. “I didn’t go into the streets. The liberal elite didn’t go into the streets. It was the indigenous young people. They were in effect the only true defenders of parliamentary democracy.”