The Scene. The annual general meeting of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture was being held in an airy ballroom in the back corner of the basement of a downtown hotel. A hundred or so farmers sat in beige chairs around tables decorated with white and purple tablecloths. In the hallway, the appetizer trays had been picked bare, save for a few remaining oatmeal and raisin cookies.
Michael Ignatieff, in dark suit, pinkish shirt and red tie, arrived at a quarter past four, shaking hands and smiling as he wound his way between the tables and chairs to the makeshift stage at the front of the room. There he took a ceremonial swig from a glass of milk, gave a thumbs up to the crowd and was applauded for his effort.
“I’ve just drunk an extremely delicious glass of Canadian milk,” he said.
Soon enough the prospective prime minister was telling that story about his uncle’s dairy farm in rural Quebec.
He is particularly fond of this story. At his first news conference as leader of the Liberal party, he recalled his fondness for the smell of manure. Should he ever achieve power it will no doubt become his cherry tree or log cabin. This time, he remembered that it was his aunt who did most of the farmwork and suggested that this was perhaps not uncommon in farming families. The crowd chuckled happily.
Flanked by the flags of Canada, the provinces and territories, he spoke of the rural-urban divide as no less than a matter of national unity. “I don’t want to live in a Canada where hope and opportunity only exist downtown,” he said.
He referred to farmers as “stewards of the land” and “stewards of the water.” He pledged to “build bridges,” not “drive wedges.”
“We can stitch this back together,” he said.
He spoke directly to his party’s shortcomings in this regard. “I don’t want to be the leader of an urban downtown party,” he said.
“I don’t want to develop policy from some ivory tower in Ottawa,” he added.
The prepared text distributed by his office was more less moot. Only passingly did he seem to pay it any attention.
“This,” he said at one point, “is an emotional issue.”
Indeed, for a man both celebrated and scorned for his intellectual capacity, his pitch in this place was almost entirely emotional. He spoke of farmers as having a “deep attachment” to the land. He harkened back to his father and the giants of Canadian liberalism, Laurier, King and Pearson. In that emphatic cadence of his, he made repeated use of the verb “to feel.”
“We’ve got to get our imaginations to work together,” he said. “There are values that we’ve got to reach down and reconnect with.”
He skipped his scripted closing line—a glib bit about moving from “hardship to hope”—entirely.
There was time afterwards for two questions.
The president of the pork council wanted to know how Canada might better export its meat. “It’s a great question,” Ignatieff commended, proceeding with an extended consideration of diplomacy, pork production, slaughterhouse capacity and something called a “market access secretariat.” We must get into “the guts” of the American political machine, he explained.
The chairman of the egg farmers commended him on his interest in agriculture affairs and thanked him for finding time to speak here.
“Guys,” Ignatieff said, dismissing any suggestion of extraordinary effort on his part, “this is what I do for a living.”
He concluded his 30-minutes then with a consideration of supply management. “I’m a strong supporter of supply management,” he assured.
The master of ceremonies thanked him for his time, vowed to keep in mind his “words and ideas” for future reference and presented the Liberal leader with a lovely parting gift. Off the stage, he retraced his steps, mingling, smiling and shaking hands—accepting a business card from one bearded young man, what appeared to be a cookbook from a friendly woman—as he wound his way back through the white tables and beige chairs.