From Harvard to Etobicoke

Michael Ignatieff is a Liberal star candidate who doesn't always agree with his party

Considering that Michael Ignatieff is used to rapt audiences of adoring students, he handled the raucous, largely hostile crowd at his nomination meeting as a Liberal candidate in Toronto last week pretty smoothly. He didn’t seem rattled when, as he spoke of his devotion to Canada, angry audience members shouted “American! American!” (He’s leaving a job as a Harvard University professor to return to Canada and run in the federal election.) He plowed right on talking about his long advocacy of human rights through taunts of “Torture lite!” (He has written that “legitimate interrogation” can involve “isolation and some non-physical stress.”) And he kept his cool despite scattered cries of “Illegal war!” (He supported the invasion of Iraq, perhaps the most prominent liberal author to do so.)

By hecklers’ standards, those who showed up to protest Ignatieff’s nomination in Etobicoke-Lakeshore touched, however crudely, on a quite impressive range of his positions. But there’s more, much more. Even in recent months, as he contemplated jumping into Canadian politics after his long career as a highbrow media star in Britain and the U.S., Ignatieff kept on speaking out frankly. Among proposals of his that you won’t find in the official Liberal platform: reform the Senate appointment process and set up a royal commission on the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. He’s gone so far as to broadly criticize the Liberal Party of Canada itself, lumping it in with the Conservatives as increasingly not up to the challenge of championing federalism in Quebec as the threat of another national unity crisis grows.

The real gripe of those hecklers, though, was that Ignatieff was being parachuted into the riding in a rushed process that didn’t give homegrown candidates any real chance to be nominated. In a constituency with a large Ukrainian-Canadian population, his writing on Ukraine made the sudden imposition of a celebrity outsider all the more galling. But Ignatieff was adept, even emotional, in rebutting accusations he had ever insulted Ukrainians. In fact, a fair reading of the contentious chapter on Ukraine in his 1995 book Blood and Belonging shows it to be a subtle meditation on nationalism in the context of the Ukrainian experience under Soviet domination in the 20th century. He tried to win over the crowd by telling about how he once took his children to see a place where Ukrainians were unjustly interned in Canada during the Second World War.

About a third walked out as he spoke anyway. Still, Ignatieff won his nomination uncontested, subject to appeals, and ranks as one of the most-watched new Liberals up for election — touted by his fans as a future prime minister. Unlike other star candidates, like former astronaut Marc Garneau, who is running near Montreal, Ignatieff clambers onto the political stage dragging a huge body of books, articles and speeches — lots of them capable of sparking bitter argument. In a brief interview in a hotel room, after he slipped out of the stormy nomination meeting by a side door, avoiding the protesters out front, he talked about his homecoming. Born in Toronto, son of a famous Canadian diplomat, Ignatieff, 58, defended himself as a loyal Canadian with every right to stand for office in his homeland, even after decades abroad. “Let’s clear up a few things. I have never held another citizenship. I have never given up my Canadian citizenship,” he said. “Cheap anti-Americanism is a menace in our politics.”

On making the transition from liberal thinker to Liberal candidate, he admitted he has to learn what he can and can’t say. Asked about Ignatieff’s support for the Iraq war, Prime Minister Paul Martin repeated last week that the governing party remains opposed to it, but said individual Liberals are “entitled to express their opinions.” Well, Ignatieff has expressed plenty of them, and admits he hasn’t sorted out yet where they clash with his new party’s platform. “It’s terribly embarrassing — I don’t always know the party line,” he said. “But I’m a team player. You don’t get ice time if you’re not a team player. As I get a bit more polished, I’ll be more careful. There’s no strategy of provocation.”

Maybe not, but much of what he has had to say is provocative anyway. In a speech at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto last spring, he didn’t cut the Liberals any slack when he took aim at all the federal parties as increasingly impotent in Quebec. And he traces that weakening to long before the sponsorship scandal tarnished the Liberal brand in the province. “The raison d’être of our parties is to create national coalitions,” he said. “The current capacity of all of our federal parties to do this has been weakened for 20 years. The reasons why are complex: failures of leadership, indifference to ideas, a hollowing out of the parties themselves, their slow decline from vehicles of policy and coalition-forming to professional election machines. But whatever the reasons, each of our national parties is now at risk of becoming merely a regional or sectional interest group, rather than a national coalition.”

Some premiers argue the real problem with Liberal Ottawa is that, in this era of federal budget surpluses, it uses its spending power to dominate the provinces. Martin denies that so-called fiscal imbalance, but Ignatieff has called for a royal commission to “reorder fiscal federalism for the 21st century.” What this reordering would amount to is unclear, however, since he also said, in a speech last June to federal bureaucrats: “We need to ensure that the federal government’s revenue capacity and effective areas of jurisdiction remain what they are now.”

One politically sensitive area in which he suggested Ottawa should change its approach is the way employment insurance and equalization funds flow to Atlantic provinces. “In the Maritimes recently, I was struck by the number of people who find the rhetoric of equalization condescending,” he said in that speech to public servants, “as if the only way to keep the Maritimes in Confederation is to maintain EI, even when it means disincentivizing the hard work Maritimers have always been ready to put in.” The comment echoes Stephen Harper’s 2002 remark about “dependence in the region that breeds a culture of defeatism” — for which the Tory leader was vilified on the East Coast.

Of course, Ignatieff’s specialty isn’t federal-provincial relations, it’s international affairs and human rights. Although he has been a bestselling author for many years, after the Sept. 11 attacks his views gained more prominence. When he supported George W. Bush’s ousting of Saddam Hussein, Ignatieff was portrayed as a liberal hawk when it came to terrorism. Yet he is a critic of the Liberal government’s post-Sept. 11 law to combat it. “Legislators invariably respond to attack by giving police additional powers whether they need them or not,” he wrote in last year’s The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror. After Sept. 11, he argued, “these increases in police power have been hastily enacted, in the U.S. Patriot Act and Canada’s Bill C-36, for example, and they do not appear to keep search-and-seizure, arrest, and surveillance power under sufficiently close judicial control.” Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan, Martin’s public security minister, has staunchly defended Bill C-36 against critics who call it a threat to civil liberties.

Ignatieff’s interest in failing states in which minorities find themselves threatened informs his view of Canada’s minorities. He is sympathetic to group rights, but argues that individual rights must trump them. In 1998’s The Warrior’s Honour, after listing “aboriginal groups” in Canada and Australia among minority communities that rightly insist on speaking for themselves, he goes on to caution: “The problem, however, is just who is being empowered — the individuals in these groups or merely their spokesmen or leaders. Empowerment that individuates, that allows individual members of minority groups to articulate their own experience and secure respect from the majority, is one thing; empowerment that simply consolidates the hold of the group on the individual and that locks individuals in victimhood is another.” It sounds like Ignatieff might side with those who are skeptical about some of the First Nations leaders who secured billions more in federal funding at their recent Kelowna, B.C., summit with Martin and the premiers.

On Quebec, Ignatieff brings the hard-headed perspective of an author who has done his own hot-spot reporting on embattled minorities, from the front lines of the former Yugoslavia to Iraq’s Kurdish region. He sets a high bar for secession, one that leads him to reject the claims of Quebec’s sovereigntists as “specious.” His standard for a justifiable case to separate: “real and recurrent killing.” How about that for clarity? “In cases like Quebec,” he writes, “where there is no history of killing, it is hard to see how past injustice could justify the high costs of separation to both sides.”

And if he rejects separation in the starkest terms, he doesn’t see much point in constitutional tinkering either. “Many Quebecers do not feel they have ever taken full psychological and emotional possession of the federal state, and look to the creation of their own to feel the final sense of being masters in their own house,” he wrote in 2000’s The Rights Revolution. “If this is the issue, then further constitutional devolution in Canada is a waste of time. Further concessions are beside the point.” Yet he doesn’t doubt Quebecers feel profoundly apart. In Blood and Belonging, Ignatieff poignantly wishes that French and English Canadians “did actually love the same nation and not merely cohabit the same state.” Few Canadian politicians, outside the Bloc Québécois — certainly no other prominent federal Liberal — would admit to regarding Canada as so starkly divided.

All this makes Ignatieff an interesting guy to read and debate. But if all he ends up being is the MP for Etobicoke-Centre, it doesn’t matter much. Even winning the seat is not a given. Along with that unruly nomination meeting, he faced questions last week about his devotion to Canadian politics. A Harvard student paper quoted him as saying he wanted to return to the Ivy League school if he wasn’t elected. But Ignatieff said he was only joking, that he’s committed to Canada no matter what, and will take up a post at the University of Toronto even if voters don’t send him to Parliament Hill.

His backers are not only sure he’s heading to Ottawa, but straight into cabinet. If Martin’s career is cut short by a poor showing in this election, Ignatieff would be on the short list of contenders to replace him. Asked if he aspires to live at 24 Sussex Drive, Ignatieff doesn’t so much deny the ambition, as scoff at the notion of looking so many moves ahead. “Take that off the table,” he said. “Look, on Saturday morning, I woke up and decided I wanted to try for the nomination in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. By Wednesday night, I’m fighting for my political life in a hotel. I’d be a fool to try to plan what’s going to happen years out.” That sounds sensible enough. But as for taking anything off the table — not even close.

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