“Would you like some soup, sir?”
Maybe this is tawdry, just another offering to the morning papers and evening news. Or maybe this is public service. Maybe it’s exactly what he should be doing, helping his fellow man, setting an example. Either way, this is politics.
“Would you like a little soup, sir?”
It’s 11:20 on the morning of Thanksgiving Sunday. Michael Ignatieff, in a white apron, is standing behind the counter at the Shepherds of Good Hope mission in Ottawa, a 20-minute walk from Parliament Hill. Men and women of various ages and in varying states file past. Behind them, three photographers click away. Ignatieff is ladling tomato and squash soup into small bowls. To his right, his wife, the exuberant former publicist Zsuzsanna Zsohar, scoops vegetables.
“Soup’s pretty good,” he says, “it’ll warm you up.”
A woman at the door, relentlessly chipper, is assuring each person who enters that the photographers won’t be taking pictures of their faces. One man isn’t willing to take her word for it and rather forcefully warns the photographers to stand down while he files past. It is the end of perhaps the worst week of Michael Ignatieff’s political career so far. His poll numbers have never been worse, his doubters have never been louder. And in the middle of this, he looks uncomfortable.
“Would you like some soup with that, sir?” he asks.
Ignatieff stays for an hour and 14 minutes, until every person is fed. He lingers awhile to talk with the staff and then he has to go. A week later, sitting at a table just off the dining room at Stornoway, the leader of the Opposition’s official residence, he tries to explain the look on his face. He acknowledges the awkwardness of the cameras. But his answer is long. He wants to explain himself fully.
“What’s so puzzling about this recession is that it’s largely invisible. But you go to a line like that and you suddenly see that it’s not just the usual street people, it’s a lot of other people who don’t know how they got there, that are shocked that they’re there, and I was shocked for them, I guess that that was my reaction,” he says. “Shocked is not quite the word, but just, it really hits you. In the same way that in Thunder Bay it hits you. On Thursday morning we were in a lumber mill that’s been closed for two years and the superintendent comes down every day just to make sure it hasn’t been broken in. Brand-new machinery standing idle. And you see something on the guy’s face that really hits you.”
He is not yet done on this. “The great thing about politics is you get to see the country raw and unplugged. You get to see things that most other Canadians don’t see,” he says. “You get to live your country’s life. So, I haven’t had the greatest autumn, but it’s an unforgettable experience and a positive one, in the sense that it deepens your sense of what your country is and what it’s going through.”
So here is Michael Ignatieff in October 2009. He is putting himself out there, listening, learning and talking it out. He is trying to understand all there is to understand about the country he hopes to lead and he is trying to help that country understand him. He is attempting to lead a party weighed down by history into the future. The questions are numerous, the opinions are plentiful and even Liberals are struggling to understand. But the onus remains entirely his.
Three years ago, he appeared smiling on the cover of this magazine beside the question of the moment: “Are you good enough for Michael Ignatieff?” Ten months into his tenure as Liberal leader, the question is now inverted: is Michael Ignatieff ever going to be good enough for us?
It has been a bizarre 10 months—from last winter’s prospect of prime minister Stéphane Dion to this fall’s reinvention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper as Ringo Starr in a Beatles cover band featuring Yo-Yo Ma. Through the spring, Ignatieff’s Liberals were ascendant. By summer, they had stalled. And through the fall, they have wilted. They now sit as much as 15 points behind the ruling Conservatives. “It’s very bad,” says EKOS pollster Frank Graves. “I don’t think it’s permanent or indelible or irreparable, but it’s very bad.”