Michael Ignatieff's convention speech: a critical reading of the text - Macleans.ca

Michael Ignatieff’s convention speech: a critical reading of the text


It’s short. That’s the first thing to note about Michael Ignatieff’s keynote speech here at the Liberals’ biennial convention in Vancouver. At just eight pages, a lot shorter than Jean Chretien’s and Stephane Dion’s rambles last night.

He opens with the requisite Canucks reference. (No complaint from this quarter: I was at the Friday night nail-biter against Chicago, and my right arm is still stiff from waving that Vancouver white towel in the air.)

“We are the big tent of Canadian life,” he boasts to get things rolling, “where all find welcome and all can be sure their voice will be heard.”

Ignatieff suggests that Canadians invest a lot of hope in the Liberal party: “If we offer our fellow citizens a message of hope, I believe Canadians will ask us to form their next government,” he says. “When they do, all our efforts will be focused on one task: to unite our people again.”

But are Canadians really so disunited that it would take a new government’s entire focus to rectify the situation?

I realize he’s not specifically speaking about Quebec here—Ignatieff seems to be suggesting a broader sort of unity malaise than the old wither-Quebec sort. Still, I’m reminded of Stéphane Dion’s frequent complaints about Canadian politicians who turn every challenge they face into an existential issue of national unity. Dion had his moments of wisdom.

Ignatieff soon gets to an example of what he says is standing in the way of Canadian unity. “To unite our people, to treat everybody fairly, while this [economic] crisis lasts, we need a common national standard of eligibility for Employment Insurance. But that’s just the beginning.”

I guess it would be.

Pursuing the recession as the issue of the moment, he comes to what I find a surprising conclusion about what’s required to end it. “A strategy for recovery must be a strategy for learning,” he says. “We must create a society where learning is a way of life and learning is life-long.”

Well, sounds good. But worthy as life-long learning might well be at any time, how does education policy amount to a strategy for recovery just now? He’s blurring very different economic challenges here if he’s suggesting that recovering from the recession is somehow identical to making sure Canadians have sufficient skills to thrive for decades to come.

He sticks to his guns on this: “The way out of this slump is hard, but the direction is clear. In the union hall, in the lecture hall, in the concert hall, wherever one Canadian is teaching another to do something they never thought possible, far-sighted government must be there to provide the resources to help everyone realize their full potential.”

Once again, I don’t get the connection. The way out of the slump, or so I’ve heard, is likely a mix of sustained low interest rates, Bank of Canada interventions to boost commercial bank lending, an injection of infrastructure spending, an effort through international bodies to fight protectionist tendencies—all that sort of thing.

The good stuff Ignatieff sees happening in all those halls is something else entirely. With all due respect to teachers of every sort, they don’t boost consumer spending or business investment.

When he moves out into the world, his natural strong suit, Ignatieff gives Canadians a collective pat on the back. “In the 1990s I reported on the ethnic wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. I worked in countries torn apart by hatred,” he says. “When I came home I realized that in a world ravaged by hatred, we remain a light unto the nations. This is the moral purpose of our country: to teach tolerance, diversity and citizenship to a troubled world.”

Some will find this maple syrup too thick to pour. I like it.

And I like it even more when he reaches into his own experience in the splintering former Yugoslavia to underline the point. “I had just crossed a checkpoint guarded by two Canadian peacekeepers,” he says, “when I was arrested by a group of paramilitaries and thrown into a van. They were waving weapons around and they were about to drive off when a hand reached in through the window, yanked out the key and a Canadian voice said: ‘We’ll do this my way.’ That peacekeeper, that voice, that brave man—from Moncton, New Brunswick—did it the Canadian way.”

Canadian political oratory is generally too bland, too generic, too divorced from the personal story of the orator. It can only make the language of our political discourse more engaging if Ignatieff keeps reaching into his personal kit bag of exotic anecdotes to add colour to his speeches.

Soon he’s come around to the inevitable attack on Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “For three years,” Ignatieff accuses, “you have played province against province, group against group, region against region, individual against individual.”

And he’s back to the unity theme: “You have failed to understand that a prime minister has one job and one job only: to unite the people of this country.”

If that were true, this would be one pathetic country. Canadians are united, not by the will of their prime ministers, but by their common history, their shared institutions, the dense thatch of their networks of civil connections—travel, education, commerce, family, popular culture (including sports), and, yes, national political parties.

Yes, we’ve been plunged on occasion into a true national unity crisis, so it’s always good to have a prime minister in office who’s up to the task of coping with one. But that can’t be a prime minister’s prime concern, let alone his “one job.” The job is running the federal government, which can’t be boiled down to a catchphrase.

Ignatieff sums up by calling for the Liberal party to make Canadians the “best educated and most entrepreneurial” of any country. Given that interesting dual goal, I would have liked to have heard something more precise about what he thinks should be done to reform education and encourage entrepreneurship.

(On on the first part, he did get a big ovation when he defined a “knowledge society” as one in which “every child gets and equal start with world-class early learning and childcare.” It will be worth watching closely for how that pledged is shaped into a platform in the coming months.)

Taken as a whole, this speech was not a clunker, but hardly a landmark either. The good news for Liberals is that the delivery was stronger than the words on the page.

Ignatieff brings a sort of restraint to the cornier lines that makes then easier to swallow, and he has learned how to hit the last two or three words of an otherwise unexceptional sentence hard, lending it an impact beyond its bare meaning. “If you can’t unite Canadians,” he says, addressing Harper directly, “if you can’t appeal to the best in all of us, WE CAN.” (Wild cheering and beating of thunder sticks.)

But leaning so heavily on the traditional Liberal theme of unity seemed to me to ring hollow at a time when the country’s unity does not seem much at issue. He needs another core message. Maybe he’ll develop that education-plus-entrepreneurship message. Today, though, Ignatieff as political stump speaker seemed a work in progress.


Michael Ignatieff’s convention speech: a critical reading of the text

  1. Great article, I haven’t seen the text of the speech, but this is an interesting analysis.

    I would quibble with your disagreement about his claim that the job of the PM is to unite Canadians; you say:

    “Canadians are united, not by the will of their prime ministers, but by their common history, their shared institutions, the dense thatch of their networks of civil connections—travel, education, commerce, family, popular culture (including sports), and, yes, national politics.”

    It seems to me that the federal government either is, or is an agent for facilitating, all of these things. Common history and shared institutions may not be exclusively derived from the federal government, but are mainly derived from it. Further, civil connections are all facilitated (in the case of family, sports, or culture) or reliant upon (in the case of most travel, commerce, and education) the federal government. So, as the head of the government, it seems that the PM very much is in the job of overseeing unity by overseeing all of its component parts.

  2. “With all due respect to teachers of every sort, they don’t boost consumer spending or business investment.”

    Actually, they do. Think about it. I know you can.

  3. The speech was short on specifics but did mention some – childcare, science & tech, blah blah. Over all – pretty good.

    Harper must be twitching that he singled him out. Good jabs.

  4. I find it funny that undemocratically appointed liberal leader thinks EI eligibility should have a national standard. If my memory is correct it was his very party that changed them to ensure votes in the maritimes. it is this type of political maneuvering that shows that not much has changed. The first and foremost goal is power. Speaking about legislation tinkering of this sort when they are not a position to reverse something of their own doing is irresponsible. The economic crisis will be gone before any change will be made.

  5. “The economic crisis will be gone before any change will be made.”

    Don’t worry. The economic crisis is going to be around for quite a long time yet. The Libs and the Cons and their flaming socialist-nationalist-greenist friends are going to have plenty of opportunities to make things worse with increasingly meddlesome and self-serving legislation.

    The gist of their policies will be (more of) the following …

    “Vote for us! We’ll give you more free (but devalued and worthless) money than the other guys!”

  6. “……: to unite the people of this country.””

    Well now, haven’t the Liberals done a he!! of a job on this subject. If you need a refresher, check out December 2008, where Chretien was being consulted on how to overthrow the newly elected parliament and…….. ta da, he answered the call, like a true dictator.

    If you want to know what Ignatieff really thought of Canada, before his parachute jump, I suggest people do their homework. This guy only wants to be on the soil of his ancestors because he became bored. This soil meant nothing to him. He has not educated a child here since the 70’s. He never paid any taxes here. He has not invested here. He did not raise his family here. His new wife, is not Canadian. He was apparently promised a job but Canadians, were not important or cool enough to hang out with prior to then.

    No thanks!

    • He doesn’t say eh! correctly and he eats his fries with a knife and fork. Oh pleaaasee!!!!

  7. ” Canadians are united, not by the will of their prime ministers, but by their common history, their shared institutions, the dense thatch of their networks of civil connections—travel, education, commerce, family, popular culture (including sports), and, yes, national political parties.”

    I think you’re being a little obtuse here JG. Surely it’s the job of the PM to articulate these connections, to help make us aware of the richness we share – not just our dischords ; to remind us of best of us and challenge us to be more than what we are. He/she should be [one] of our national storytellers – Ignatieff is certainly qualified to fulfill this role, if he chooses – it doesn’t seem to be one that SH relishes.
    It is the job of our PM to remind us that we are more than the sum of our collective parts.
    You well be right that the liberals need another core message, but national unity and purpose has worked well in the past because it resonates – some bold new ideas would also be nice. Man does not live by bread alone Mr G.

  8. Seems to me that it wasn’t Harper’s and his gov’t’s intent to stir up anger and fury in Quebec when he essentially called a possible coalition government an illegal insurrection, anchored by separatists. (Conveniently forget that he supported a similar minority gov’t solution in 2004)… It was the public outrage and ensuing threats of western separatism — thus, my way or I’m taking the ball home — that caused the deepest tremors on the unity file in 13 years.
    When will the MsM call Harper’s act for what it was?

  9. What I got from last night’s speech is – the personalization of politics just got ratched up a notch.
    First by the US style of convention Rah Rah stuff – twistley banners with Liberal on one side – Michael on the other – and those thunder sticks – please please – send all that stuff back south of the border (just keep the Obama style communications dialogue / fundraising software).
    Second – by Ignatieff metaphorically rolling up his sleeves and offering to go mano a mano with Harper.
    So – Michael Ignatieff is going to prove he isn’t Stephen Harper (shouldn’t be hard) – but he’s going to do it by not attacking him personally (Hey Stephen – I’m tying one hand behind my back here – I didn’t like the way Stephane Dion did things – refusing to get down in the mud with you on nasty personal attacks – but I’m a gentleman see – and gentlemen don’t do nasty – anymore than we form coalitions with parties on the left – Oops – maybe he’s tied both hands behind his back!).
    Hopefully – the verbal flourishes will be forgotten when we are all back to work tomorrow – and Michael will in fact attack – but leave the down and dirty stuff – where necessary – to members of his team.
    If he does allow his team (all pretty good talent) to show itself – he will immediately differentiate himself from Mr. Harper’s one-man-band routine – which must be tiring – keeping all those balls he doesn’t trust to his colleagues – up in the air!

  10. I took Ignatieff’s references to the need for a PM to unite Canadians as intended to be a counterpoint to Harper’s tendency to use tactics designed to drive wedges between different groups of Canadians for political advantage. One example, mentioned in earlier comments, was the ‘separatist’ attack on the coalition, but there have been other examples, such as his attempts to identify artists as elitists. My impression was that Ignatieff was trying to appeal to Canadians who don’t particularly like this tendency, rather than trying to resurrect the ‘traditional’ Canadian unity issue surrounding Quebec.

    And finally, re: your claim that “I was at the Friday night nail-biter against Chicago, and my right arm is still stiff from waving that Vancouver white towel in the air.”
    Must’ve been lonely, the game was on Thursday.

  11. As well as disagreeing with your assessment re a Prime Minister’s job is all about unity of the country, I disagree with your thought that education and an end to this recession are not related. Of course they are.

    The jobs that have left us, in many many cases, will never return. If the plan is to sit back and wait for them, we’ll be in this recession forever. We need to LEARN, i.e., educate ourselves, with new skills for new employment opportunities. We also need to learn new ways of doing old things, to innovate those industries that are still hanging on. Maybe we should all have lessons in common sense, first. Sheesh.

  12. No relation between education and economic prosperity? Teachers don’t boost spending or investment?

    Wow Mr. Geddes, I can’t believe you wrote that in your article.

    “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” – MLK, Jr. Letter From Birmingham Jail

    Do you have an education? I’ll bet that you think that you think all of your own thoughts and weren’t taught any of them, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, by any professors, teachers, philosophers, entrepreneurs, scientists or artists throughout human history right? Let me guess your thoughts and ideas come from some mystical transcendental force, some innate ability within your mind?

    How did you become a journalist? Your boss doesn’t have an education? Did your education influence your salary in any way? Do you spend any of that salary gained from your education on products? What products do you buy? Did someone with an education create the product you buy? Do you deal with any companies founded or run by someone with an education? Was your house or apartment built by someone with an education in a specific trade? How about your hairdresser, does she have an education from hairdressing school? Does your doctor or dentist have an education? What about the mechanic that repairs your car?

    We are all “standing on the shoulders of giants,” meaning, “One who develops future intellectual pursuits by understanding the research and works created by notable thinkers of the past”; a contemporary interpretation. It was famously used by the seventeenth-century scientist Isaac Newton who wrote it as: Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident.

    Students are future consumers, employees, employers, investors, inventors, business owners, CEO’s, entrepreneurs, scientists, politicians, artists, trades workers, financial planners, writers, journalists, et cetera, et cetera…

  13. If you haven’t read his speech do so; you will want to gag!

    “a PM has one job and one job only, to unite the people of this country.” Really????