Getting to know Michael Ignatieff

The Liberal leader has written a lot about both sides of his family without telling us very much about himself

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Sunday, April 26, 2009

"There is no crown, you know," Ignatieff was saying the other day in a sunny alcove at Stornoway, the opposition leader's gracious residence in Rockcliffe, as he sat for a lengthy Q&A for Policy Options magazine.

"It's your house," he said, "the public's house, have a look around." A portrait of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, founder of the first enduring Liberal dynasty, hangs behind the desk in Ignatieff's study. And a detailed map of the coast of Newfoundland by Captain James Cook, better known for exploring the West Coast of Canada.

George Drew - whom Iggy's father, George Ignatieff, later knew at the Canadian high commission in London - lived here. John Diefenbaker and Mike Pearson, Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and John Turner, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper have all lived here on their way to or from 24 Sussex. The difference between the two is that Sussex is a house, while Stornoway is a home.

It's Pearson, among his predecessors as Liberal leader, for whom Ignatieff feels the most affinity. Pearson spent a good part of his career outside Canada, in places like Britain and America, much as Ignatieff has done.

The lure of politics, and the prospect of leadership, brought Pearson home after a lifetime in the foreign service, much as it brought Ignatieff home after nearly 30 years as a public intellectual, author and commentator in Britain and the United States. Pearson was 65 when he became prime minister, after five years and two elections in opposition. Ignatieff, 62 next month, is looking at an election this fall or next spring, after two terms in opposition.

As Pearson did, Ignatieff is having to learn his new trade as he goes, and learn about the country in the lonely travels of an opposition leader - a life of flying economy, room service at midnight, and way too much coffee on the road to riding associations, campus clubs, legion halls, seniors' groups, chambers of commerce, and the summer barbecues. Welcome home, Michael.

"A lot of Mike Pearson's work rebuilding the party was done in this house," Ignatieff said. And when you consider Pearson's achievements, as foreign minister and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ignatieff observes it's remarkable he agreed to stay on for five years in the wilderness following the Diefenbaker landslide of 1958, rebuilding the Liberal Party from the ground up.

Ignatieff realizes that notwithstanding the recent Liberal surge in the polls, there is much work to be done to restore the fabled Liberal brand and rebuild the party's ground game across the country. Or, in the words of Sir Wilfrid, whom Ignatieff is fond of quoting: "It is not enough to have principles, we must also have organization."

Brian Mulroney used to put it another way, when as he often said, the leader of either the Liberals or Tories, the two parties of government in Canada, had only three jobs: "Unite the party, fill the campaign coffers, and win the election."

Ignatieff nods approvingly of both quotes. "I think both Mr. Laurier and Mr. Mulroney are speaking well. It sounds right to me," he says.

But thanks to Stephen Harper and his disastrous November economic update, as well to Stéphane Dion and the Three Stooges coalition, both of which took Parliament and the country to the brink, a competitive Liberal convention, which would have diverted millions of dollars from the next campaign has been transformed instead into a love-in for Iggy. After a quarter-century of bruising leadership battles, the Liberal party is united and beginning to fill its coffers for the election ahead.

When it's considered that Harper could have had Dion to kick around for another six months, while Ignatieff and Bob Rae spent millions on a rocky road to Vancouver, the Liberals have every reason to be grateful. Ignatieff has another reason to send Harper flowers on his 50th birthday this week. Had Harper not blown a majority in Quebec in last fall's campaign, the Liberals would have been looking at another four or five years in opposition, and could well have looked past Ignatieff to the next generation of leadership. Fate and destiny have dealt another hand.

And so instead of telling the Liberal Party why he should become its leader, Ignatieff has an opportunity to tell the country why he should become its 23rd prime minister.

His acceptance speech in Vancouver is an opportunity on twin message tracks. The first is Iggy's chance to introduce himself to the country, to tell Canadians who he is, and where he comes from. The second is his chance to tell Canadians his idea of the country, and where he wants to take it, as well as its role in the world. The vision thing.

Ignatieff has written a lot about both sides of his family, the Ignatieffs and the Grants, without telling very much about himself. The Ignatieffs were Russian blue-bloods. The Grants were WASPs from central casting, from somewhere between Queen's University and External Affairs.

Ignatieff writes about his mother's side of the house in True Patriot Love, a slender new volume that was timed for the leadership campaign. His uncle, George Grant, was a high Red Tory who famously wrote Lament for a Nation in 1965, and regarded Pearson as a traitor to his class, a sellout to the Americans.

Yet Ignatieff's own children, Theo and Sophie, are absent from the story, living their own lives in Toronto and at the University of Edinburgh. Ignatieff says they are very cool with what their dad is doing, and that he couldn't more grateful for their support.

And here is the divide between public and private life. In a way, it is none of our business, but they are part of his narrative, and in that sense the public is entitled to know something about them. Ignatieff, in his acceptance address, needs to find a way to bring them into his story. He can look it up under Barack Obama. There is still too much about him that Canadians don't know.

They know he's smart enough to be prime minister. And after the bloodless coup he staged for the Liberal leadership, they know he's tough enough. What they still don't know is who he is, and his idea of our country.

He has told the story of his forebears. Here is the time, and chance, for him to tell his own.

 
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