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Ignatieff and the Canadian establishment(s)

The Toronto-centric upper crust losing its former sway


 

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This week’s issue of the New Yorker features a profile of Michael Ignatieff by Adam Gopnik, who writes from the perspective of a fellow Canadian who has known Ignatieff for many years. Gopnik is always well worth reading, and here brings particular feeling to the question of what might lure a successful Canadian expat home.

One passage, though, strikes me as out of date, and in a way that matters. Gopnik buys into what I think is a stale notion of the Canadian establishment. “Though ever more open and meritocratic…” he says, “the elite tends to rise through the same small number of excellent and cheap universities.”

He cites the fact that Ignatieff and Bob Rae were University of Toronto roommates before they were political rivals as an example of the way upwardly mobile Canadians “tend to get tangled up in old apartments rented, lovers shared, divorces remembered.”

I guess that’s how it once was. But when I cast my mind across today’s Canadian upper crust, it’s hard to come up with evidence that the old Toronto-centric establishment (thinking only about English Canada) still holds anything approaching its former sway. A few names spring to mind:

The country’s top judge, Beverley McLachlin, was born in Pincher Creek, Alta, educated in Edmonton and made her name as a jurist in Vancouver. The most admired Canadian corporate boss, RiM’s Mike Lazaridis, is an immigrant kid who dropped out of University of Waterloo before earning his degree. The new mandarin of mandarins, Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters, is a Saskatchewan guy—born there, educated there (apart from taking an MA at Queen’s), and established his reputation as a smart bureaucrat there. Stephen Harper might have fallen into something like the old pattern if he hadn’t, way back when, dropped out of U of T after a couple of months, and then migrated to Calgary where he sank deep educational, personal and political roots.

Of course there are still connections to be forged at U of T, Queen’s and McGill, still rich Torontonians who like hanging out with other rich Torontonians, still social sets that might vaguely resemble the one Ignatieff and Rae grew up inside. But the old unified establishment that Peter C. Newman once chronicled, and that Gopnik references, no longer runs the show. Too many powerful Canadians just don’t share that background.

Still, Gopnik might be onto something when he suggests that the persistence of a small, compact establishment explains how Ignatieff rose the way he did—why “a brilliant man from a well-known family who gives a good lecture and gets the notice of a few big people can become a party leader more of less overnight.” It’s fair to say that Ignatieff’s return to Canada was fueled largely by the enthusiasm he generated among Toronto Liberals with ties to the party’s and country’s old establishment.

Since then, however, he’s had to broaden his appeal, hit the road, work the country. I assume he grasps that Canadian ambition and influence flows through more varied channels these days. If he hasn’t figured that out, then he and his Liberals are in big trouble.


 
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Ignatieff and the Canadian establishment(s)

  1. So reading Geddes, the old establishment can install Ignatieff as Liberal leader, but lacks the power to directly install him as PM?

    This is supposed to be comforting?

    • It's pretty comforting, actually.

    • I wouldn't even go so far as to say they could 'install' him as leader. He did lose to that other prof fellow the first time, if I recall.

    • Ah, but how successful has the Toronto establishment really ever been at installing PM's? Their last two champions were Paul Martin and John Turner; before that, you have to go back to . . . who? Mackenzie King? Meighen?

      • …but I thought Turner was from Vancouver Quadra.

        Joking aside, your point is taken, but I was really questioning whether, as Geddes contends, that it is a "stale notion" of the establishment, if they are still able to install the leader of a party. Examples of some people who have risen despite being outside the establishment is no measure of the change in their influence, there have always been some people at the top that were outside the establishment.

  2. The other RiM CEO, Jim Balsillie, however, was at Trinitiy College, UofT with such luminaries as Andrew Coyne, Atom Egoyan, Malcolm Gladwell, John Duffy, Patricia Pearson (speaking of old romances). All the same graduating class, IIRC. The former Anglican Bishop of Saskatchewan , Tony Burton, was an undergraduate contemporary. The current director of Faith and Order with the World Council of Churches, John Gibaut, was a Divinity graduate that same year. The first woman to be nominated as head of an Anglican Province, Victoria Matthews was at Trins doing an advanced degree in Divinity.

    One might argue that vestiges of establishment still exist.

  3. and here brings particular feeling to the question of what might lure a successful Canadian expat home.

    What might lure a successful Canadian expat home? The desire to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than a small fish in a vast ocean.

    • The big-fish-small-pond point comes up in Ignatieff's book "True Patriot Love." I reviewed the book at some length, but here's what I wrote on this point:

      Like his maternal great-grandfather, grandfather, and philosopher uncle, Ignatieff went away but came home. “Life was elsewhere all right,” he writes, “but this place was my place, my problem, my obsession, my home.” That reads like a sidelong admission that he finally resigned himself to becoming what he says George Munro Grant and Sandford Fleming were in their time: “big men in small ponds.”

      If you're curious, the full review is here:

      http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/04/17/book-review-mi

      • This is the second biggest concern I have regarding Ignatieff. How can he make those kinds of assertions given a history of choosing to spend the majority of his life outside of 'his obsession'? As much as I try to get my head around it, it just seems patently false.

        • This is a very good point. MI would be wise to play down his "obsession" lest it make him look insincere – a very dangerous quality for an aspiring leader.

        • This is actually the point on which I feel Iggy is being most genuine and legitimate. Whenever I have lived in/visited other countries, even other provices, I try to emerse myself in the local politics but I just can't seem to care enough. My concern is always with Canadian/Ontario politics. I know serveral expat Canadians who are still more aware of and connected to what is going in Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal than whereever they currently live.

          Even being a cosmopolitan internationalist, one has to ground oneself somewhere, otherwise there is no context for one's internationalism. For a time, I think Ignatief perhaps tried to ground himself in the U.S or U.K, but I think he has legitimately realized that that is just not possible. His explanation on this topic rings true to me.

      • Thanks, John. That's an interesting review of TPL – I missed it when it was originally posted back in April.

        But what if Ignatieff is right and the great powers no longer matter quite the way they used to? Perhaps, then, all ponds are smaller now. In which case, migrating back to the placid pool where one was hatched might not really be settling for less.

        It may be true that all ponds are smaller now, but I think but the main reason for Ignatieff's triumphal return to the Canadian backwater was his recognition that he had reached the limits of his ambitions outside of Canada. It was a choice between spending the twilight of his career at his prestigious Harvard post, or returning to Canada to build a real legacy as a politician and possible prime minister. Ignatieff, by his own admission, has always been legacy-minded (not that there's anything wrong with that).

        • That is exactly how I read his motivations. If he wants a legacy as a world leader – even a 'B' list world leader – Canada is the logical place to make his last, defining legacy. To call Canada his 'passion' rings hollow. The next big question is whether he has the political street smarts and humility to recognize that he doesn't have all the answers, required to become an effective political leader.

  4. Some might say a) Americans can hardly talk, given the Clinton/Bush/Kennedy dynasties, about any sort of old-boys non-meritocratic system, and b) wow, a lot of people on here have Toronto envy.

    • Anybody that knows anything about William Jefferson Clinton knows that he definitely did not spring from some dynastic clan. And probably the only thing that held Hillary back from elected office before was that she had married BIll. We'll see going forward with Chelsea whether a "dynasty" evolves but I would say even with the Kennedys their Power, prestige and pull are no longer what they once were.

  5. Canada … zzzzzzzzzzz……..zzzzzzzzz…….zzzzzzzzzz

    The Canadian political system wants leaders with populist appeal without having to go through all the populist trouble and risk to to find one.

  6. Gopnik was the perfect guy to write the piece.

    Aside from knowing Ignatieff personally and sharing a literary agent with him, he serves up this howler about Canadians:

    "Ignatieff's exile and return are really not mysterious. Almost every ambitious Canadian at least thinks of leaving, because, model liberal country or not, Canada offers a small stage."

    • Not a howler! Dead on. Nothing is happening in Canada.

      • Perhaps he means that the notion that Canada is a "model liberal country" is a howler ;-)

      • Nothing's happening anywhere else either.

    • Is Gopnik maybe telling us more about himself than anything else?

  7. It seems to me that it is pretty clear there is a Toronto establishment and that it continues to exist.

    The relevant point is that, despite a lot of trying, that Toronto never succeeded in becoming the Canadian city and it certainly never became a distinctive cultural centre on the world stage. It is increasingly obvious that it never will be as Toronto is, relatively speaking, declining in importance as a financial centre, as an intellectual centre and as a media centre. The city is not so much a "has been" on the national and international stage as a "never was" and who is or who isn't part of the "establishment" of a provincial centre, which is what Toronto is forever destined to be, just doesn't matter an awful lot.

    • Toronto is a provincial centre because, this country constituted as it is, it's impossible to have a national centre. This is probably a good thing, since it also means that it's impossible to have a national establishment, with all the dead weight on the nation that that implies.

    • Thanks for providing the facts to back up your assertions, those were quite helpful.

  8. Irreverent comment of dubious taste: some handler needs to tell politicians not to hold their hands up the way Ignatieff does in that photo. He seems to be saying, "It was this big, honest and …."

  9. Irreverent comment of dubious taste: some handler needs to tell politicians not to hold their hands up the way Ignatieff does in that photo. He seems to be saying, "It was this big, honest and …."

    Although maybe that is all that talk about a "Canadian establishment" amounts to.

  10. Once an elitist always an elitist. Iggy can't get it out of his blood. If talking about watching King Lear as one or two of the greatest experiences of you life is showing that he relates to ordinary Canadians then I think Iggy may not be too street wise. Unfortunately he can't help himself. Watching McCallum on TV reciting virtually all of the hot button issues as being the reason for an election smacks of desperation. A long list means that none of them are of much importance. Go Iggy call an election. Ignore the polls and the comments on the various boards. Try to grab power for the sake of your resume go ahead. Canadians will have a message for you and your guppies.

  11. Once an elitist always an elitist. Iggy can't get it out of his blood. If talking about watching King Lear as one or two of the greatest experiences of your life is showing that he relates to ordinary Canadians then I think Iggy may not be too street wise. Unfortunately he can't help himself. Watching McCallum on TV reciting virtually all of the hot button issues as being the reason for an election smacks of desperation. A long list means that none of them are of much importance. Go Iggy call an election. Ignore the polls and the comments on the various boards. Try to grab power for the sake of your resume go ahead. Canadians will have a message for you and your guppies.

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