Michael Ignatieff, Liberal leader, is lavish in his adoration for the country and the people he wishes to lead. His recently published book, True Patriot Love, which dovetailed with his ascension to the Liberal party leadership, is replete with fuzzy bromides about Canada and its “quietly but intensely patriotic” citizens.
Yet Michael Ignatieff, Harvard professor and public intellectual, was once slightly more harsh toward his native land. Following a 2005 lecture at the University of Dublin’s Trinity College, Ignatieff excoriated Canadians for trading on Canada’s “entirely bogus reputation as peacekeepers” for 40 years and for favouring “hospitals and schools and roads” over international citizenship. “If you are a human rights defender and you want something done to stop [a] massacre, you have to go to the Pentagon, because no one else is serious,” Ignatieff said.
“It’s disgusting in my own country, and I love my country, Canada, but they would rather bitch about their rich neighbour to the south than actually pay the note,” he said, in response to a question about peacekeeping. “To pay the bill to be an international citizen is not something that they want to do.”
Ignatieff gave the lecture while he was director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. The talk, which received brief mention in Canadian media at the time, reiterated Ignatieff’s belief that the U.S. is a force for good in the world. “Don’t forget that the speech given by a U.S. president that most committed the United States to the promotion of human rights and democracy in the Arab world was given by George W. Bush,” he said. He later told the Irish Times that he was taken aback by the “waves of anti-American and anti-Bush feeling in an Irish audience.” It was in the question-and-answer session which followed, and which has never been reported, that Ignatieff was most critical of Canada.
He was also seemingly at odds with the party he would come to lead four years later. Peacekeeping is the stuff of lore within the Liberal party, which bills itself as the founding father of Canada’s traditional role as a peaceful international referee to the world. As Liberal external affairs minister, Lester B. Pearson is credited with inventing the very concept when he championed the first armed United Nations peacekeeping force in 1956. “There tends to be a strong association with peacekeeping” within the Liberal party, says author and former Liberal strategist John Duffy. “Liberals are proud of their role in this tradition.”
Ignatieff, circa 2005, begged to differ. Introduced by Trinity College professor Ron Hill as “a challenging liberal thinker,” Ignatieff spoke favourably about America’s peacekeeping capabilities and the need to use “men with guns” when protecting the world’s vulnerable. Ignatieff had already backed away from his support of the Iraq war when he gave the speech, though he still praised George W. Bush’s foreign policy at a time when then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin was attacking Bush for what he said was the U.S. president’s lack of “global conscience.” Canada certainly didn’t fare well in Ignatieff’s speech; Ignatieff portrays the country as a somewhat frustrated, reflexively anti-American middling power that has become something of a pretender on the world stage.
“We used to be peacekeepers, we used to have the capabilities [but] we gave them away, because people wanted hospitals and schools and roads. And God bless them, but the costs are coming in.” (Ignatieff is correct in his assertion that Canada’s contribution of army and police personnel to the UN has decreased over the last several decades. However, Canada remains one of the UN’s largest contributors of international, professional and general service staff, and is the eighth largest contributor to the UN’s total peacekeeping budget, according to UN figures.)
Liberal spokesperson Dan Lauzon, who declined to answer specific questions about Ignatieff’s speech, said the address didn’t contradict any Liberal party principles. “It’s provocative, sure, but consistent with our long-held position,” Lauzon wrote in an email to Maclean’s. “Though the language used in the quote is more provocative than we’re used to in the political realm, I think it’s consistent with our position that cuts made to the military in the past were too deep, that we’re glad they were corrected, and that we intend to ensure that it never happens again.”
Ignatieff’s speech, which has gone largely unnoticed, threatens to reignite the war of words between the Liberal and Conservatives, the latter of which has launched attack ads largely based on Ignatieff’s (much older) musings. Certainly Lauzon, who passed along a selection of past Stephen Harper quotations to Maclean’s, is in a scrappy mood. “If we’re digging up bones here, I’d like to point out that these comments are certainly more consistent than some Stephen Harper’s past quotes, which you may wish to probe for a future article.”
Still, Ignatieff softened his criticism of Canada’s peacekeeping reputation the very day he became Liberal leader. During his acceptance speech last January, he humoured the crowd with a tale of being saved by a Canadian peacekeeper during a sojourn in the former Yugoslavia. In “a world ravaged by hatred,” he said, “we remain a light unto the nations.” The “Canadian way,” he concluded, was the “way for the whole world.”
With Nancy Macdonald