Teacher, taught

The Canada Day long weekend is as good a time as any, one supposes, to sit down and write an essay about what it means to be Canadian.

So, that’s what former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff did in another newspaper this past week. For 650 words, give or take, Ignatieff laboured to define Canadian-ness — and along the way hae gave us a rare glimpse into what he is feeling these days.

Among other things, he’s still grappling with the May 2 election result. The first couple paragraphs of Ignatieff’s essay are about an Asia Pacific Foundation report, which found nearly three million Canadians — “nine per cent of our population,” Ignatieff writes, to ensure the point is not missed — toil hither and yon around the globe.

Canadians are to be found, he writes, “on oil rigs offshore in Ghana, in NGOs in African villages, hunkered down at United Nations headquarters in Baghdad,” and so on.

Then, Ignatieff gets down to what I suspect was the point of his unexpected essay: He lost the election because the Conservatives made a big deal about the fact he lived abroad for nearly three decades. And that, he grimly notes, is what we can now expect from “the schoolyard of Ottawa politics.”

I think he meant the “schoolyard” designation as a put-down of political life in Ottawa — which, Ignatieff rightly notes, is a crazy place where much gets said, but little gets done. Personally, however, I think the “schoolyard” crack cuts both ways. Parliament is a sandbox, to be sure, where grown men and women behave in a manner you would never see in any other workplace.

But it’s also a “schoolyard” in this way: It’s the place where Michael Ignatieff, the teacher, got taught.

Let me explain.

Before he brought in the gaggle of geniuses who helped him to pilot the once-great Liberal Party of Canada into history’s ditch, I was an adviser to Michael Ignatieff. I didn’t know the guy, particularly, but I was friends with his chief of staff, Paul Zed, and his principal secretary, Ian Davey.

They brought me in to run their “war room.”

A political war room is mainly designed to toss figurative hand grenades at one’s opponents and, when necessary, catch and defuse the ones tossed your way. In the spring of 2009, I and others had heard a big hand grenade was about to land: Stephen Harper was going to unleash the Mother of All Attack Ads on Michael Ignatieff.

Harper had decided to define Ignatieff before he could define himself. Simple. Politics 101.

Except when the $4 million “Just Visiting” campaign commenced, Ignatieff wasn’t nearly as concerned as me or Davey or Zed. If anything, he was initially bemused by it all. Ignatieff, who had a tendency to regard politics as a teaching experience, simply couldn’t believe Canadians could be taught he was a foreigner.

Said he: “I’m a Canadian. Nobody will believe these stupid ads.”

“They’re not trying to say you’re an American, or that it’s bad to be American,” I said to him. “The point of their ads, Michael, is that you’re not ‘just visiting’ Canada — you’re ‘just visiting’ Earth. They’re trying to suggest that you’ve never been on public transit, or worried about a mortgage payment, or lost a job. They’re trying to say you don’t understand the reality of the average Canadian’s life.” He disagreed with our suggestion that we fight fire with fire, as was his prerogative, and that was that. I went back to the real world in Toronto and, a few months later, he did likewise.

What does it mean to be Canadian? Well, it means all sorts of things.

As of May 2, it means if you leave home, you bloody well better not take 30 years to find your way back.


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