Could Michael Ignatieff's Canada be the Big Idea of this election?

Stephen Handelman, Time International

Élections 2006


Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff is learning just how cold a winter campaign can be. Nine months ago, he delivered a mesmerizing speech to the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa that turned him into an instant political star--and, in some eager Liberal minds, a future Prime Minister. But on a chilly evening in Toronto last week he discovered that even for stars, the Canadian political landscape is treacherous. At his nomination meeting to become a Liberal candidate for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, Ignatieff, 58, could barely make himself heard above a jeering chorus that frosted him with insults like "torture professor," "communist" and, most wounding of all for the son of distinguished Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff, "Yankee." Several audience members had stormed out before he got up to speak.
The fuss was, sadly, predictable. Ignatieff, a renowned author and human-rights advocate, was vaulted into the riding by Liberal Party brass to replace popular sitting M.P. Jean Augustine, who allegedly agreed to relinquish her seat in return for the promise of an Ontario provincial appointment. The backroom wheeling and dealing set off a firestorm in the local riding association, whose Ukrainian-Canadian leadership says two other candidates were cheated out of their chance to run. In response, protesters denigrated Ignatieff's writings, his patriotism, even his Russian ancestry (his grandfather served in the Cabinet of the last Russian czar) with placards reading PRINCE IGNATIEFF ... FAKE CANADIAN. A rueful Ignatieff later told the press he hoped the party would "listen carefully" to the dissent. He did not, however, offer to reopen the nominating process.
That sleazy spectacle was an appropriate introduction to the promise as well as the pitfalls of our winter election. Canadians, pundits say, would rather not think about politics this holiday season--and will probably spite the ambitions of Ottawa's political élite by returning a hobbled minority government virtually identical to the last one. Just punishment for staging an election about nothing more than jockeying for power--at taxpayers' expense. In Toronto last week, some outraged citizens interviewed by a local Italian-language TV station announced they weren't going to vote. "It won't make a bit of difference," said one.
But perhaps it will. Every campaign needs a Big Idea, an uplifting issue. And in the midst of the ethnic name calling and political machinations that darkened his nomination meeting, Ignatieff seized on the one that might matter: Canada, the country. Defending himself against charges that a parachutist couldn't represent the interests of a riding he barely knew, he warned that Canadian survival was endangered by increasingly parochial ethnic and regional politics: "If we have a politics in which the only serious question is, What does my community get out of it?, we will end up without a country."
A similar burst of heartfelt rhetoric, in fact, was what launched Ignatieff's political career last March. In a speech that came close to criticizing Prime Minister Paul Martin's ginger approach to minority government, he called for a bold definition of national unity and Canadian sovereignty that was relevant to the modern world. "We're an experiment as to whether a multicultural, multilingual society can survive and prosper," he said. "If we can't do it, no one can."
The speech contained the outlines of the Big Idea. While the revival of Quebec separatism remains a clear danger, he said, Canada also needs to deal with its other regional, ethnic and economic tensions before it is overwhelmed by them. Ignatieff, whose career has been devoted to chronicling human-rights abuses committed in the name of nationalism, said there was a "global stake in us getting this story right ... in a world which is ravaged by intolerance and hatred."
The professor struck a chord. It was a measure of how deeply Canadians--and Liberals--longed for a new, defining national vision that talk about Ignatieff as a future leader surfaced almost immediately. At the moment, that prospect seems improbable. He alienated many Canadians with his outspoken early support for the Iraq war on the grounds that derailing Saddam Hussein's regime was a worthy humanitarian aim. And his political skills remain a work in progress. "One of the things about academics is they often cruelly and comically lack good political judgment," he admitted in March. Maybe so. But Ignatieff's clumsily engineered candidacy has injected something hot and vital into this frosty campaign. It's not about political power. It's about the country's future, stupid.


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