The other day the National Post ran an excerpt from Michael Ignatieff’s new book, True Patriot Love. Most of it was just the usual boilerplate hogwash apparently obligatory if one fancies oneself a member of the intellectual wing of the Canadian establishment. You know the sort of stuff:
“Most of us are quietly but intensely patriotic. Our nationalism exemplifies the paradox that feeling for a country increases with the difficulty of imagining it as a country at all.”
Well, it’s an improvement on his last book, whose general line was that feeling for a country increases with the difficulty of rousing oneself to finish a sentence about it. Returning to the Dominion of Paradox after spending his entire adult life abroad, Mr. Ignatieff, Canada’s prodiggy son, announced in the intro to his previous tome on the land of his birth that writing it had “deepened his attachment to the place on earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” Gee, that’s awfully big of you.
But evidently the spinmeisters nobbled him and demanded he oomph it up a bit for Vol. 2. He never imagined he’d have to write a second book about Canada, but hey, maybe there’s a book in that: Canada is an “act of imagining.” [Note to agent: Check J. Ralston Saul didn’t get to this one first.]
Anyway, the bit that caught my eye—and, indeed, made it momentarily stop rolling—was this:
“To imagine it as a citizen is to imagine it as a resident of Yellow Quill reservation in Saskatchewan would have had to imagine it, this Canada where two half-naked children died in a snow-covered field in the sub-Arctic darkness because their father tried to take the sick little girls to his parents and never made it, and all you can hope is that death was as mercilessly quick as the cold can make it. What does a resident of Yellow Quill imagine, what do we Canadians imagine our country to be, the morning we learn that children have perished in this way? It is surely more than just a tragic story of one family. It is a story about us.”
It’s tempting to respond, “Oh, bugger off, you ridiculous poseur,” and pass on to something more rewarding, like Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. But the sedating pretentiousness of Mr. Ignatieff’s prose style shouldn’t disguise the fact that this may be the most morally contemptible statement by a Canadian party leader since Confederation. (I’d be interested in alternative bids for that title, if you know of any. We may publish them as an anthology, although probably not a GG-award-winning one.)
“Their father tried to take the sick little girls to his parents and never made it.” I wonder what it takes to formulate it that way, knowing, as Ignatieff surely does, that Christopher Pauchay was drunk, so drunk that he was oblivious (or so we must presume, for he was found guilty merely of negligence, rather than sadism) to the fact that it was well after midnight, minus 50 with the wind chill, and he had dressed three-year-old Kaydance and 16-month Santana only in T-shirts and diapers. At 5 a.m., Pauchay was found on a neighbour’s doorstep, stinking of booze, frostbitten and aggressive, so that the RCMP were obliged to accompany the paramedics. It was not until eight hours later, in the hospital, that he mentioned the children.
As to “the sick little girls,” Santana wasn’t sick until her father’s carelessness made her first ill, and then dead; and Kaydance’s body was discovered with a cut on her leg, but, given the number of Pauchay’s knives found scattered on his path through the snow, or the others his brother-in-law had seen him putting under the sofa that afternoon, there’s no way of knowing whether, amidst the other abuses he heaped fatally on her, the cut was also her father’s fault—or more benignly the consequence of a three-year-old toddling around in her diaper during her “parent’s” all-day bender.
Why couldn’t Ignatieff have used words like “drunk” and “abusive,” or even “minus 50” and “dressed only in diapers”?
Oh, come on, be reasonable. He’s a caring, progressive party leader. Can’t go around being judgmental. Stick to the passive voice—“children have perished”—and the usual sentimental evasions. The price of “imagining Canada” Ignatieff-style is that an awful lot of cold hard reality has to be discarded.
As to the idea that it’s “a story about us,” no, it’s a story about him: the vandalism he does to the memory of Kaydance and Santana Pauchay, the tasteless opportunism of cashing in on their fate by conscripting a grimly particular episode to the cheap generalities of societal guilt, the horrible glimpse inside the husk of a man once genuinely engaged by Iraq and Bosnia and reduced by ambition to peddling what he knows to be bilge.
To be sure, one could argue that it is “about us” in the sense that Christopher Pauchay wouldn’t be taking his daughters for 50-below midnight strolls in diapers had the white man not unloaded the boat half a millennium ago. Or, alternatively, it’s “about us” in the sense that the lavish government “compassion” and neo-segregationism of the last half-century have inflicted far more damage on Canada’s Aboriginal population than the bead-sellers, mythical smallpox bearers, Victorian imperialists and Christian missionaries could have accomplished in their wildest dreams. I naturally incline to the latter view, which is no doubt “racist.” But isn’t the real racism Ignatieff’s? In seeking, by his weaselly language and revolting argument, to burden all of us with Pauchay’s actions, the Liberal leader is being the quintessential New Racist: he and I are sophisticated human beings who are accountable for our actions, but Christopher Pauchay is excused. To Ignatieff, Pauchay is not fully human, but something closer to a lame animal whom one cannot reasonably hold responsible for his moral choices. If I had to be on the receiving end of whitey’s condescension, I think I’d rather be a “noble savage” than an incorrigible one.
Most Canadians—even Liberals, even Jack Layton—know this is not “a story about us.” But then, as Tonto remarked in another context, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ kemo sabe?” Last week’s Maclean’s had a cover story about Canadians’ “disturbing” attitudes to different religions. As “disturbing” as the poll was, I found the Maclean’s copy editors’ sub-headlines rather more so. The front cover roared: “A disturbing new poll shows the limits of our tolerance.” “Disturbing” to whom, kemo sabe? Presumably not to the 62 per cent of respondents who think “laws and norms should not be modified to accommodate minorities.” And surely, with numbers like that, there’s a sporting chance a majority of Maclean’s readers feel the same way. “This runs counter to all we espouse,” complains the Angus Reid pollster. Again: what do you mean, “we”?
Kenneth Whyte, the head honcho of this magazine, claimed to detect “an unhealthily low level of tolerance toward immigrant communities . . . still.” What would be the “healthy” level and can it be administered intravenously or would that only add to wait times at the Royal Victoria? My Maclean’s colleagues seem perilously close to a maple-flavoured variant of the old Brecht line that we need to elect a new people.
Obviously, “tolerance” has to have “limits.” Otherwise, it’s just a fluffy euphemism for nihilism. We “tolerate” apartheid legal systems such as Yellow Quill’s “sentencing circles.” Should we, therefore, tolerate Islamic law? Indeed, are we still permitted to give any thought to the matter and weigh the differences between, say, common law and sharia? Or is Canadian-style tolerance meant to be a blank cheque for any novelty item in the glorious multiculti mosaic?
And if the poll findings truly “run counter to all we espouse,” maybe it’s because you guys are espousing it so badly. When Michael Ignatieff insists that a “father” “trying” to take “two sick little girls to their parents” is “a story of us,” he is inviting Canadians to collude in a lie as obvious as it is wicked. When he tells 30 million people at a time of economic recession that the country they live in can only be “imagined,” the truly pitiful thing is how tired and fake it all sounds. Yet this dead, desiccated language has become the only acceptable form of public discourse about Canadian identity—even though, as that poll demonstrates, it’s at odds with how actual Canadians think of their country. The story Maclean’s couldn’t quite bring itself to acknowledge last week is that, after 40 years of self-flattering Trudeaupian fantasy promoted relentlessly by every institution in society, huge numbers of Canadians “still” (Ken Whyte’s word) don’t buy it. Instead of recoiling in horror like Lady Bracknell, maybe it would be more useful to ask: why?
Alas, the nation’s “experts” have spent so much time “imagining a country” Ignatieff-fashion that they cannot bear a rare glimpse of the non-imaginary one.