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.”
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