Canada’s summer culture cannot be defined by trying to guess how many angels dance on Margaret Atwood’s head. It is best caught at bake sales, corn roasts, strawberry festivals, and the hootenannies where country singers search for their humanity—while their listeners catch its echoes deep inside themselves.
That was the captivating subtext the cross-country marathon Michael Ignatieff undertook this summer, hunkered down in a bus that took him and his cavalcade to more than 100 waypoints (and 140 events)—the places that the members of his brain trust (both of them) categorized as winnable seats in the general election expected this fall.
It was a gamble: would the candidate find his groove—or stumble into irrelevancy? When I briefly joined the tour I found the Liberal leader in the best frame of mind since he left his Harvard sinecure to assay the black arts of Canadian politics. He’s still not a natural in that quagmire of dashed expectations. But he has lost his amateur status and was at ease with himself and with the growing crowds that greeted him.
The essential epiphany that marked his summer jaunt was the realization that the political game was not really about him but that it was—and is—about them—the voters who need a valid reason for supporting the Count from Petrograd. He is making converts but still has a long, rocky road to make his message stick. Ignatieff spent the summer imprinting his presence on the national conscience, not by hectoring the crowds but by chatting them up on the local and national issues that mattered. “Let your [writing] grow out of the land beneath your feet,” Willa Cather, the American novelist, wisely advised. That was how the Liberal leader found his text—different at every stop—using local touchstones to attract attention and reaction to his way of thinking. Listening to him at past party occasions, I recalled Sherlock Holmes’s observation about the curious incident of the dog that did not bark. That, all too often, used to be Iggy. No more. Woof, woof!
During my time on the bus, it rained almost continually, so I decided to judge Ignatieff’s reception by my umbrella test. Whenever it rains during a leader’s speech, he can’t help getting soaked because you can’t hold a microphone and an umbrella at the same time. My test was to see how many people in the audience—moved by the resonance of his message—would express their allegiance by closing their own umbrellas in empathy. I had observed this phenomenon during the best of the Trudeau and Mulroney campaigns, but there were just enough umbrella-closers in response to Iggy (at least in the eastern parts of the country) to be noticeable.
To make the point: Canadians are not politically remonstrative—but maybe our pollster should start measuring the closed umbrella factor—within acceptable margins of error, of course.
As I watched Ignatieff getting drenched at a southern Ontario rally when it poured as if to signal Noah that he should launch his ark, the Liberal leader soldiered on. Then he swam back to his seat, grinning all the way, waving at the odd umbrella-closer.
This hardly ranks as a political miracle but his message was clear: Ignatieff’s chief opponent—with his meticulously coiffed locks and distaste for the slightest show of emotion—could never duplicate Iggy’s aquatic campaign.
Afterwards, back on the bus, the Liberal leader sat down beside me and let himself go. “This thing is beginning to seep into my bones as never before,” he said. “I live in a world where perception is reality but I don’t want to be fooled by appearances. What I saw out there was a deepening distaste for Harper. What’s sticking in people’s throats is the way he governs—proroguing Parliament; failing to show respect to the courts; the census controversy, which makes him appear to believe you can run a government without valid information; the single-source fighter contract, which will cost Canadians $16 billion without any justification. This stuff accumulates. People are connecting with us and feel seriously concerned.”
“I’m up against the most uncivil and ruthless government in the history of the country,” he swore through clenched teeth. “You can’t be a centrist on tactics alone. I’m in the political centre by temperament and by persuasion. That’s a core affirmation that has been there all my life. I want to get rid of all this ‘natural party of government’ stuff; it’s arrogant and speaks of entitlement. We have to earn the right to govern.”
And the Liberal doesn’t fear the political ring. “I fought from the minute I came to Canadian politics. I fought for my right to be heard. I fought for my right to be here. I fought for the right to be considered a goddamned Canadian. I’ve had to fight for everything,” he said. “The image that I can’t fight has been comprehensively disproved by the fact that I’m here, talking to you now. Am I angry? You bet I’m angry. But I hope it’s—you know—don’t get mad, get even.”
Michael Ignatieff is no longer seeking redemption; now he wants revenge.