Michael Ignatieff has 'big' vision for Canada
Published Friday, April 17, 2009 1:56PM EDT
OTTAWA - Michael Ignatieff wants Canadians to think big.
High-speed rail links between major cities. An east-west electricity corridor. Completion of a coast-to-coast, four-lane national highway system.
Even a national energy strategy (Not to be confused with the hated National Energy Program, he stresses).
Those are just some of the bold -- and pricey -- ideas the Liberal leader is advancing as visionary, nation-building projects that could help bind the country together in the 21st Century.
They are not party policy -- at least not yet. Ignatieff, who will be formally crowned Liberal leader at a Vancouver convention April 30 to May 2, is not ready to spell out a detailed political agenda just yet. That will come closer to an election.
But he's offering a sneak peek of his long-term vision for the country in his latest book: True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada.
Timed for release just prior to the convention -- which was originally supposed to be the culmination of a hard-fought leadership contest -- the book chronicles the patriotic fervour that motivated prominent members of his mother's family, the Grants. And it explores Ignatieff's sense of duty to carry on the family's nation-building tradition.
"The tradition of which I am part is an affirmation of Canadian possibility," Ignatieff writes.
"But it is also a tradition that issues a challenge to the future. It asks the fourth generation to pose, in our turn, the key question about our country that we must answer."
That key question, Ignatieff posits, is how Canada can maintain "its sovereignty and identity in the vortex of a globalization that is beyond the control of a single empire."
The answer, he suggests, lies in strengthening the ties that bind through costly measures like high-speed rail links between Windsor and Quebec City, Vancouver and Calgary, and Calgary and Edmonton.
"The question that (the Grants) asked and answered in their fashion demands an answer in our time: What exactly is being Canadian worth to us, in dollars and cents? How much are we prepared to invest to keep our country in one piece?"
It's a question Ignatieff himself isn't prepared to answer with any degree of precision just yet.
"It's not a political manifesto, it's not my election platform," he cautions in an interview to promote his 17th book.
He allows that some of his ideas may prove unaffordable, particularly since he's likely to inherit a Tory deficit "north of $80 billion" should Liberals win the next election. Still, he says "some" of them will likely make their way in some form into an eventual platform, with funding to be phased in as fiscal circumstances allow.
"I want to be prudent, I want to be responsible. But I also want to start Canadians thinking about, yeah, what can we do together, let's do something big together . . . Let's think big."
Ignatieff shrugs off suggestions he's setting Canadians up for disappointment if his big ideas turn out to be prohibitively expensive. A prime minister, he asserts, has "only one job" -- to "strengthen our union" -- and can't be daunted by the price tag.
"I think a politician should be saying here's where I'd like to go as and when our economy recovers. Let's find a way to do this."
True Patriot Love tells the story of three of Ignatieff's most celebrated ancestors on his mother's side.
His great-grandfather, onetime Queen's University principal George Monro Grant, wrote an influential 1873 book, promoting the idea of a national railway extending to the Pacific coast -- a "staggering" feat that would take 15 years to accomplish.
His grandfather, William Grant, onetime principal of Upper Canada College, was among the thousands of young Canadians who fought in the First World War.
His uncle, George Parkin Grant, penned Lament for a Nation, a seminal 1965 polemic that predicted Canada would eventually be swallowed up by the voracious imperialism of the United States. Ironically, his fatalistic thesis helped reawaken Canadian nationalism.
Ignatieff takes from his family history this lesson: "We've paid a hell of a price to keep this country together and to stand for stuff."
"If you measure the ambitions of our forefathers with our own ambitions, almost the central point of the book is how small our ambitions have become."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, he asserts, has adopted an "amazingly visionless" approach to spending billions on infrastructure projects without any overriding national purpose, an approach that amounts to "throw a little (money) here, throw a little there."
"To that extent, I am saying let's show some vision and imagination and some daring here."
Ignatieff started work on his latest book in 2000, before returning to Canada in 2006 after almost 30 years abroad. Having explored his paternal artistocratic Russian roots in The Russian Album 20 years ago, he thought it time to examine his mother's side of the family.
But the former journalist and Harvard academic acknowledges the book morphed along the way into a quasi-political vehicle for Canadians to get to know him better before his big coming out party in Vancouver.
He's fully aware the Harper Tories will comb through it -- as they've done with his previous tomes -- for any snippet that could be used to smear his image. Hence, he says he tried to write "carefully," but not defensively, refusing to airbrush out unflattering details just to avoid giving ammunition to his political opponents.
One suspects Tory muck-rakers will pounce on Ignatieff's admission that his Grant ancestors suffered from an "illusion of self-importance," believing that Canada "needed the shaping act of the imagination only they could provide."
"I can see how vain and distorted our family myth making could be, but for all that, I cannot disavow it. It is part of me," he writes.
That could be used nicely to bolster the Tories' nascent campaign to depict Ignatieff as an egotistical, intellectual dilettante who swanned around Europe and the United States before deigning to return home to lead the country he disdained to reside in for most of his adult life.
It's an elitist image Ignatieff unconsciously reinforces as he discusses his book, comfortably ensconced on a plush sofa in the elegant Official Opposition Leader's residence, sipping tea from dainty china cups crafted near the Hungarian hometown of his wife, Zsuzsanna Zohar.
But he argues the book is essentially a rebuttal of the Tory caricature of him.
Far from being an outsider, it places him as the latest in a long line of passionate Canadian patriots.
"Conservatives, you know, try to do this number on you about are you really a Canadian and there's no question that the book says this is where I come from, this is the stuff that drives me," Ignatieff says.
"You can't come at the end of this tradition and not feel pretty passionate about your country."
That said, Ignatieff insists he doesn't share his ancestors' conceit that he and he alone can save the country.
"Look, I take myself seriously, but I think Canada fortunately is in wonderful shape and doesn't need any single individual," he says.
"I don't come out of this with a sense of, you know, destiny. . . I take the country seriously and I'd like to do my best for it."
As for the dilettante label, Ignatieff scoffs: "There are many things that I am but dilettante just won't fly."
Nevertheless, the label clearly gets under his skin.
"The idea that someone who's written 14 books (he's actually written 17), taught in some good schools, been a serious journalist and writer, earned his living his whole life by his wits is a dilettante, I mean you know, just get the hell out of here."
The word, he fumes, implies that he's coasted through life on some vast family wealth. On the contrary, he says he left the country "precisely because my family was well-known in Canada."
By contrast, he points out that Harper had virtually no international experience before becoming prime minister and his "only known employment" outside politics was as the head of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative advocacy group.
"Are we seriously saying that the criteria for being a leader of the country is you never step out of the (country), you know, you have no international experience?"