After a week of strutting and taunting and double-dog-daring, it doesn’t look like Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff will be going head to head in a televised debate. Which is good news, since it means Canadians will be spared the spectacle of watching two men fight to lead a country that neither has ever shown much interest in, or loyalty toward. For months leading up to the election, Conservative attack ads pressed home the point that Michael Ignatieff didn’t go to Ottawa for you. The problem is, neither did Stephen Harper.
The questions surrounding Ignatieff’s commitment to Canada are well known. When he wandered up from Harvard and presented himself as a candidate for leader of the Liberal party almost six years ago, he arrived with a great deal of baggage, most of it covered in travel stickers from places that were a long way from Canada. Some of that baggage was ideological, such as his support for such decidedly non-Liberal adventures as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But the biggest problem was what became known as his “pronoun problem.” After a quarter of a century spent anywhere but here, he had taken to using the first-person plural (we, our) when talking to people who weren’t Canadians.
Ignatieff has never completely shaken that stigma. And while his political supporters and allies in the press like to accuse anyone who brings it up of xenophobia, it’s a real problem. While two generations of Liberals were engaged in the most wrenching fights in this country’s history, Ignatieff was travelling the world, making documentaries and writing novels and popular philosophy. That isn’t to belittle the work he was doing; he just didn’t betray any great concern for the land of his birth.
And beyond the sheer length of his absence, Ignatieff proudly adopted the pose of the upper-crust cosmopolitan in much of his writing. Even when he said nice things about Canada, as at the end of the preface to his 2000 Massey Lectures, it was with a dash of condescension: “The exercise of writing these lectures has deepened my attachment to the place on Earth that, if I needed one, I would call home.” It would seem that countries, like taxes, are for little people.
But if anything, Stephen Harper’s commitment to Canada is even more suspect. If Ignatieff spent most of his life ignoring Canada while promenading in the grander salons of the world, Harper has come at it from the opposite direction. Even though he grew up in Toronto’s placid Leaside neighbourhood, he quickly adopted the colonial mindset of the insecure migrant, becoming culturally more Albertan than Albertans. Harper even has his own version of Ignatieff’s pronoun problem—the infamous Alberta Agenda letter he co-signed after the 2000 election and sent to Ralph Klein, encouraging him to “build firewalls” around the province to protect it from “an aggressive and hostile federal government.”
Setting aside the firewall letter, Harper has never really hidden his disdain for parts of Canada that aren’t as successful at digging oil out of the ground. He accused the Maritimes of having a “culture of defeat” and once said that Canada “appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.” Never mind his own recent boasts about the economy and his education plan: these aren’t the instincts of a man blessed with an expansive and generous view of his countrymen.
And so it is that Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper, for all their differences in world view and intellectual temperament, have both spent their careers riffing off the same underlying theme, that Canada itself is irrelevant. Given all of this, it isn’t clear why either man wants to be prime minister. Harper—who most days could win handily an angriest-man-in-Canada competition—clearly loathes his job, the press, and the daily imperatives of life down on Supreme-Soviet-Upon-Rideau. As for Ignatieff, he has certainly worked hard to dispel suspicions that he’s off to Harvard at the first opportunity, but his job application True Patriot Love is such a cloying Via Rail portrait of Canada that it is hard to take seriously the idea that he actually believes it.
So when Canadians head to the polls on May 2, it is with the rather unpleasant knowledge that whoever ends up prime minister, we will be led by someone for whom the federal government is little more than a convenient vehicle for his own snobbery, condescension and resentment. It’s a depressing choice: Stephen Harper, the alienated and embittered Albertan, who has perhaps come to appreciate the rest of the country for which he has shown such contempt. Or Michael Ignatieff, the gallivanting, sugar-spun cosmopolitan, who has finally decided he needs a country after all.