In advance of his keynote presentation at the upcoming Columbia Basin Watershed Network Symposium, Water Canada spoke with John Ralston Saul, Canadian intellectual and author of A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, about environment, economics, governance, and First Nations.

John Ralston Saul

Water Canada: This symposium focuses on watershed governance, so let’s start with natural resources. What’s your view of the way Canada currently manages its natural resources?

John Ralston Saul: I’ve been quite involved with speaking about and defending the north and interior British Columbia, and rethinking the relationship we have with place. As Canadians, we’ve taken this view that humans are on top and everything is here to serve us, but it doesn’t work that way. In a number of my books, I’ve written about fisheries and fishing. With 19th-century industrial approaches to fishing, we’re treating the resource as if it is totally renewable, but we’re fishing in a way that’s non-renewable. We throw back 50 per cent of fish caught—often dead, by that point. It’s uncivilized and destructive, and people still don’t know it’s true. We’re taking a very expensive commodity and treating it as a cheap object of which there’s an endless supply. It’s approximately the same as the approach we’ve taken to cutting down trees, or hunting buffalo. Western civilization has to understand what it’s doing and that it doesn’t work.

How can Canada improve upon our traditionally industrial approach to resource management?

The only way out of it is to do economics which are inclusive. Right now, people look at pulp and paper and say “Here are the costs of producing pulp, and here’s what a profit looks like.” But this approach doesn’t include the full cost, especially the ones assumed by everybody else: the loss of use of a river, the disappearance of fish. It might mean water isn’t drinkable unless we build an expensive water filtration plant. Who is paying for a fouled stream? The company isn’t baring that cost, citizens are bearing it.

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With this non-integrated approach toward environment, we’ve gotten ourselves into a crisis. Moving forward, it’s saying “If you want to cut down these trees, here’s what it actually costs.” It’s not romanticism, and it’s not goodwill. The answer is a complete change in operations. Some of that has already happened, and some is happening right now, but it’s all happening so slowly, and with such a lack of imagination. We should be treating it as an emergency.

How should Canada incorporate the important role of First Nations into watershed governance?

The first stage is listening to what First Nations are saying. There are approaches and attitudes coming from of the Aboriginal world which simply have not been seized hold of. Parts of the environmental movement remain pretty urban and not plugged into what First Nations have been saying for a long time. The Supreme Court has made it extremely clear that governments and corporations need to be consulting with Aboriginal people in the fullest sense, but we’re still seeing endless prevarication, avoidance, and attempts to minimalize what “consultation” means.

The other element is that the form of negotiations over treaties has been set in an old-fashioned, colonial way. When you scrape away the nice surface, the process of negotiation leads you back toward an “us-and-them” approach. If governments said, “Actually, this is really about a massive transfer of money, power, and land, and therefore the negotiations should be done openly,” perhaps negotiations would start with a First Nations group asking for 200,000 acres, and end with the government arguing they should have 300,000 or 400,000. What are we gaining through reductionism? First Nations want to live in the places being negotiated for, whereas corporations don’t want to live there. They want to take the wood and run—there’s no long-term commitment. It’s far better to have land under control by people who are committed to it.

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Most people talk about weight and measurement. Here we have a fundamental philosophical problem—problems are solved not by negotiating the one per cent. They’re solved by changing our attitudes and understanding what is at stake and what are our obligations. It’s realizing that the things you thought would cost you money will actually make you money. We have a big difficulty embracing these things.

One of the symposium’s major topics is the impending date of negotiation for the Columbia River Treaty (CRT). The year 2024 is the earliest either Canada or the United States may terminate the CRT, provided 10-years advance notice is given in 2014. Both countries are currently considering the options. Going into the symposium, what are your thoughts about the treaty?

When I was in high school, we used to go to Ottawa to visit politicians. In 1962 or 1963, we met the leading opponent of the treaty, an NDP politician from British Columbia. I remember him giving us an enormous pile of documents. I knew nothing at that time, but I remember being struck at how astonishing it was we’d fallen into this trap, which involved a great amount of energy, and nobody had bothered to measure the other implications. We’re still dealing with that.

The most important thing is people have to come to understand that real economics is speculative and inclusive. It is a social phenomenon. There’s no invisible hand; it’s not a mathematical problem. It’s about how we want to live, and how should we go about it. It has always been that. The last 40 years have been about pretending that economics had their own truth and you could impose that truth on human beings and society, even if it was destructive. The next big question will be whether or not we’ve learned from that.

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In an address at Haida Gwaii in 2002, you said “the return of the key player to the table—the aboriginal peoples—will be essential to making the right environmental decisions.” What do you think Canadians should learn about First Nations and the environment?

Non-Aboriginal Canadians need to learn how to listen to First Nations to hear what they’re saying. It’s not about feeling sorry; it’s about trying to understand there’s another way of thinking about these things.

Secondly, Canada has a long history of benefiting from its commodities and convincing ourselves that we’re smart as opposed to lucky. We have fished, mined, polluted—you name it, we’ve done it—as if we have the right to do it, and moved on. The biggest question for all of us: Are we able to accept that we were extremely lucky to get a place with all of these commodities, and that to be successful we have to respect these commodities rather than cash in? We have to learn that commodity-rich countries succeed only when they understand the relationship between people and place, and ease of making short-term benefit from these commodities is a destructive delusion. We have to make proper use of our role.

John Ralston Saul is scheduled to speak at the Columbia Basin Watershed Network Symposium on September 29.

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