From Iraq to employment insurance, Michael Ignatieff's thinking has evolved over time. But the federal Liberal Leader has exhibited noteworthy consistency in his conception of Canada as an “imagined community.”
Few would disagree with the idea of Canada as a political invention. It did not emerge organically from the shared ethnic lineage of its early inhabitants but was cobbled together as an antidote to creeping U.S. republicanism.
The primary ties that bind us are consequently ones of convenience. According to Mr. Ignatieff, appealing to shared “myths of origin” won't keep the country intact because we have none – or at least none strong enough to counter our centrifugal forces. No, only empathy can save us.
Mr. Ignatieff opens True Patriot Love with a meditation worthy of Atticus Finch. “To imagine Canada, you have to walk a mile in the moccasins of others. … [T]o survive as a country, we have to imagine what we have trouble understanding.”
More than a decade and a half ago, he did just that for Blood and Belonging, his collection of essays on ethnic nationalism. What he found in the Quebec of the early 1990s – where he snowmobiled with Cree hunters and downed beer with separatists – was a “nation” where Canadian federalism had no impassioned defenders left, not even among the most ferocious anti-sovereigntists. His conclusion: “Because we do not share the same nation, we cannot love the same state.”
Mr. Ignatieff did not don Pierre Trudeau's mantle, though most Liberals still pine for him to, when it came time to debate nation status for Quebec. In fact, he was the first major federalist politician to champion the formal recognition of Quebec as a nation. He enthusiastically endorsed a resolution to this effect that was adopted by the Liberals' Quebec wing in late 2006. The resolution, fiercely opposed by Stéphane Dion, unleashed the series of events that led Stephen Harper to table, soon afterward, a motion in the House of Commons to recognize the Québécois as “a nation within a united Canada.”
If it's now considered a given that no federalist party can win Quebec by appealing to pan-Canadian “myths of origin,” Mr. Ignatieff may have at least found the formula that will rally enough anti-sovereigntist and anti-Tory voters to put the Liberals back on track in Quebec.
Most polls show the Liberals and Bloc Québécois within a few points of each other in the province, with each party garnering support in the mid-30s. (A Strategic Counsel poll out this week gives the Bloc a 14-point lead, but it has a much higher margin of error.)
It is a remarkable comeback for a party not long ago left for dead in Quebec. But the Liberal revival is not as surprising as it sounds. Many Quebeckers would jump at any excuse not to vote for the Bloc. The party is seen as too mushy and metrosexual by many average Quebeckers. Countless nationalists, and even sovereigntists, are uncomfortable voting for it since it does not represent their views on most issues.
Hence, at the outset of the last federal campaign, the Tories and Bloc were neck and neck with 30-per-cent support in the polls. The Liberals under Mr. Dion trailed even the New Democrats, at 15 per cent.
The media narrative deemed that Tory cuts to the arts and a hard-line stand on young offenders drove Quebeckers into the Bloc's embrace. But post-election polling, analyzed by the Université de Montréal's Claire Durand, indicated very few early Tory supporters switched to the Bloc. Instead, most went to the Liberals. Despite their leader, Liberal support rose nine points during the campaign. Bloc gains (eight points) came almost exclusively at the NDP's expense. None of the switchers mentioned arts cuts or young offenders as the reason for their move, although “blocking Harper” was a prime motivation.
Now, as Mr. Harper more or less abandons any hope of a Conservative breakthrough in the province he once so assiduously courted, a strong Bloc may be key to keeping the Tories in power. If the Tories can't win Quebec seats themselves – and if the slate of candidates they present is as weak as it was in the last election, they likely can't – then they'd probably rather lose them to the Bloc than to Mr. Ignatieff.
In the next election, Mr. Harper must limit Liberal gains in Quebec, since he is less likely to stop Mr. Ignatieff from recapturing natural Liberal seats in Ontario that fell to the Conservatives due to Mr. Dion's unpopularity. For now, though, Quebec is Mr. Ignatieff's to lose.
Liberal revival in Quebec
A strong Bloc may be key for the Tories. For now, the province is Ignatieff's to lose