Michael Ignatieff's pronoun problem

Paul Wells on why those Conservative attack ads just might work

Rex Murphy is sure the Conservative ads about Michael Ignatieff will fail because “Canadians don’t like mean.” Chantal Hébert hopes they will fail because If Harper had wanted to do the Bloc’s bidding at Conservative expense, he would not have proceeded otherwise.”

I am less certain, and here’s why. Here’s my column from the Maclean’s print edition of Sept. 6, 2006. Here’s part of the argument:

There’s been grumbling in Liberal ranks about what some call Ignatieff’s “pronoun problem” ever since he moved to Toronto in 2005. His pronoun problem is his tendency to use the first person plural — we, our — when discussing a country that isn’t Canada. He makes sure not to do it anymore, but he used to.

I’m trying to decide how much this bothers me. I can tell you it bothers a lot of Liberals. At their recent Vancouver caucus meeting, those who aren’t supporting Ignatieff often mentioned the more than 30 years during which his principal residence was in England or the United States.(He left Canada in 1969 and returned for less than two years in 1978.)”He’s not a Liberal,” a few said. “He’s not Canadian,” one or two said. But when I got to Toronto and reported this to Maclean’s colleagues, one or two rolled their eyes theatrically. “God,” one said. “How parochial.”


Can you imagine somebody getting elected president of the United States whose 30-year stint outside the United States had ended less than three years earlier? Can you imagine a president of France who’d lived for 30 years in San Francisco or Seoul?

Let me be clear (he said, sounding oddly like Michael Ignatieff). I’m not saying foreign travel disqualifies you from politics. Indeed, you shouldn’t be able to get far in politics unless you can show some stamps in your passport. Jacques Chirac studied at Harvard, Bill Clinton at Oxford. But there’s a difference between weekend jaunts to Monaco or Seattle and the perfectly rootless existence of an incurable cosmopolitan. Sometimes the pronouns can help you spot the difference. I studied in Paris for nine months, for instance. But when I said “Let’s get a beer,” I didn’t mean, “Let me get a beer along with all the people of my adopted nation, France.”

There’s more, but you get the point. I was hearing from some Liberals, and writing on my own dime, pretty much the same argument in 2006 that the Conservatives are using against Ignatieff in 2009. And it was tremendously effective among Liberals in 2006. It may be markedly less effective today, after Ignatieff has spent more time residing in Canada, representing a Toronto riding in the House of Commons, and writing a book called I Swear to God I’m Canadian True Patriot Love.

In fact, I know people who are ready to go to the wall to defend Ignatieff today, when he is the only serviceable weapon at hand against Stephen Harper, against an argument they were using themselves against Ignatieff in 2006, when they preferred other Liberal leadership candidates. Those people may well have changed their minds. Or they may be preferring hope to consistency.

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