The Commons: Old school

Michael Ignatieff fills the university halls with big questions: 'Who's not in the room? Who's out in the cold?'

Observe the Ignatieff in its familiar habitat.

Standing on a square stage in the middle of the room, grey jacket removed and placed on back of chair. He wears black shoes, dark blue slacks, light blue shirt, sleeves rolled up. He holds the microphone in his left hand, gestures with right. Students seated on all sides, he talks broadly of economic restructuring, innovation, energy efficiency, democratic engagement, social security, China, Brazil, Africa, foreign aid, intellectual property, personal responsibility, productivity, internationalism and education. He promises to be concise, he asks everyone else to be civil. After about 15 minutes he calls for questions. A line of about 16 young people forms behind a microphone set up in the audience.

So has the Liberal leader opted to open his year with a nod to both the past and the future—a return to the university halls from which he came, standing amidst the hopeful young minds of this country’s tomorrow, prefacing a restart to his Prime Ministerial ambitions and perhaps even relaunching the Liberal Party of Canada. In the capital a week before Parliament would have opened, he stood this afternoon before a crowd of 250 at the University of Ottawa. A 20-minute walk from the House of Commons, he attempted to make sense of here, there and everywhere else beyond both.

“One of things, I think, that drives all of politics is anybody who’s in politics always asks the question, ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s not included? Who doesn’t share? Who doesn’t participate? Who doesn’t benefit from what I’ve got?’ ” he asked. “That’s the core political instinct, in my view. ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s out in the cold?’ “

He referred here to young aboriginal Canadians without a high school education, the hundreds of thousands of Canadians without sufficient literacy skills.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, bringing the people in to the promise of Canadian life,” he continued. “Because you can’t get anywhere in this society without the education, the kind of education, that you’ve got. So let’s commit, whatever party you commit to, whatever group you commit to, you’re always asking the question, ‘Who’s not in the room? Who’s not sharing? Who’s not involved? Who’s not getting the benefit of Canadian life the way I am?’ That seems to me the political question of all.”

The kids in attendance had still more questions.

The first young person addressed him as “sir” and asked about the environment. A young women asked about the rationality of criminal sentencing then stepped back, crossed her arms across her chest, and listened expectantly. The third question had to do with the responsibility to protect doctrine. A smiling, nervous girl from Alberta wondered about the oil sands, then questioned whether Mr. Ignatieff would commit to “gender parity” in the questioners this afternoon. Four young men filmed the proceedings with hand-held devices.

Mr. Ignatieff didn’t so much pace the stage as wander and fidget. He outlined the basis of a vision, without committing to a specific plan. He demonstrated that necessary ability to put forth notions—doing better, being smarter, acting fairer—to which only a mad man would object.

He entertained all questions and encouraged what he could, but often met earnest hopefulness with crushing practicality. Would he enforce a moratorium on oil sands development in Alberta? No. Would he bring an end to the seal hunt and the “crushing in of baby seal skulls?” Sorry.

“The difficult thing about politics is you have to face facts,” he said at one point.

A well-prepared young lady asked if he might freeze tuition fees. “That’s a great question and you’re going to hate my answer,” he said, proceeding to explain the economics of post-secondary education and the unfeasibility of such a proposal.

“We’ve got to base public policy on science and evidence,” he ventured.

Someone suggested a national summit of young people to consider the challenge of climate change. Mr. Ignatieff said that seemed a fine idea. Another asked about meeting Lester B. Pearson’s goals for foreign aid. Mr. Ignatieff said that’d be fine, but it mattered first how that aid was being distributed and used. There was a question about something called “social entrepreneurship.” Mr. Ignatieff seemed not only to understand what this meant, but to have considered it at some length. Offered a few opportunities to do so, he spoke effusively of education as the focus if we are to be prepared for whatever is coming.

The reception was hardly fawning, rather simply appreciative. He perhaps gained something merely by being here, daring to submit himself to the questions and comments of presumably uncontrollable citizens.

If there was a question that hung unaddressed it was the one he asked himself, about who is here and who is not. In a way he did not intend, it perhaps begs to be asked of this first attempt of 2010 to rediscover the Michael Ignatieff of 2006. If he has engaged the young, or perhaps merely found his footing, what now? Who is not in this room? And how can he go about bringing them in?

No such cynical questions were asked this afternoon, these students perhaps understanding that this city is home to hundreds of people specifically employed to stew over such queries.

When it was over, a few students stepped forward to present Mr. Ignatieff with a University of Ottawa hoodie, which he dutifully tried on. It fit, the day ending then with at least one unquestionable victory.