Trudeau, He Ain’t

By Max Fawcett | July 3, 2009

Mercifully, it seems that the next federal election is at least a few months away, now that the confrontation over employment insurance, medical isotopes, and various other points of disagreement between the governing Conservatives and opposition Liberals has been postponed indefinitely. While it’s a good thing that Canadians won’t have to contend with scores of aggressively earnest volunteers campaigning on behalf of their chosen candidate this summer, the two sides haven’t signed a truce, either. Over the next few months, each side will fight the first battle of the next election, each engaged in a campaign to define newly elected Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff on their terms. Ironically, they both appear to be attempting to portray him as the heir to Pierre Trudeau’s legacy.

The battle to define Ignatieff began just days after he was acclaimed as Stephane Dion’s replacement at the Liberal leadership convention in Vancouver this past May. The Conservatives fired first, rolling out an aggressive advertising campaign aimed at painting Ignatieff as an impatient visitor, an effete intellectual who would rather be in the salons and classrooms of Europe than the Parliament of Canada, the very same strategy that one assumes Harper and his advisors would have used in the days after Trudeau captured the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada in 1968. Like Trudeau, who was portrayed as a disinterested trust-fund playboy, the Conservatives are attempting to depict Ignatieff as a man too far removed from the experience of the average Canadian to either understand their needs or act in their interests, focusing their attentions on both his scholarly wanderings abroad and his patrician roots and ties to Russian nobility.

The Liberals, in turn, have also turned to the Trudeau legacy in their effort to define Michael Ignatieff. They have championed his academic and intellectual achievements as proof that he’s a man of ideas, of thought, and of imagination, a stark contrast, they say, to the cold, mechanical, tactically obsessed Harper. According to Toronto-area Liberal MP Navdeep Bains, a self-described Charter of Rights Liberal and a man who regards Pierre Trudeau as his political hero, the comparison between Trudeau and Ignatieff is a good fit. “It’s not necessarily the particular idea that he puts out there, the notion for me is that Michael thinks big,” Bains said. “It’s the fact that he exudes confidence that he can take on big ideas. Just like Trudeau early on, there was no one idea that stuck out, you just sensed there was hope and vision.”

While Ignatieff wisely deflects any direct comparisons that are made between himself and Trudeau, he hasn’t done anything to discourage the people who keep making them, either. As the CBC’s John Gray notes, “about Michael Ignatieff, it was the eager invocation of the memory of Pierre Trudeau that sent out the first signal of things to come.” In almost hushed voices Liberals in the know said that Ignatieff had “the Trudeau thing.” The reference to Trudeau that Ignatieff included in a speech given to youth delegates at the convention that confirmed him as leader is indicative of his approach to the Trudeau legacy. “You have to indulge an old guy like me,” he said, “but this is the feeling that I felt in 1968 at the great convention that chose Pierre Elliott Trudeau as our prime minister.” By casting himself as an unabashed admirer of Trudeau’s work, one who shares his professional credentials and political orientation, Ignatieff and his team put forward the elements of a political narrative that are too conspicuous for even the most dim-witted pundit to miss.

This strategy of associative identification has been largely successful, too, as a variety of political writers, from the Globe and Mail’s Lawrence Martin to the Independent’s Leonard Doyle to Peter C. Newman, have picked up on this trail of crumbs.

The problem with this comparison between Ignatieff and Trudeau is that there’s no substance to it. In the November 2008 Globe and Mail column in which he makes the comparison between Ignatieff and Trudeau, Lawrence Martin declared the new Liberal leader as the rightful heir to the charismatic political lineage of Trudeau, and before him John F. Kennedy. Yet Ignatieff’s supposed charm, which is largely the result of being compared with Stephen Harper, whose goofy looking sweater vests have more charm than he does, is of a decidedly different nature than Trudeau’s.

From the pirouette that he performed behind the Queen’s back to the outfits that he wore in the House of Commons purely in order to get under John Diefenbaker’s notoriously thin skin, Trudeau’s charm had a degree of insolence and subversiveness to it that Ignatieff does not appear capable of understanding, much less mimicking. Take, as an example, his decision to wear a Vancouver Canucks jersey at the recent convention, despite the fact that he is a professed lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Can anyone really imagine Trudeau wearing a Leafs jersey in Toronto, or a Jets jersey in Winnipeg, just to ingratiate himself to a crowd that was already there to support him?

Throughout his career, sometimes to his own detriment, Trudeau repeatedly reaffirmed the fact that he had no interest in his own popularity, an unusual trait for somebody who ran for public office. Ignatieff, on the other hand, seems almost desperately interested in being liked, a trait that he shares with the rest of his colleagues on Parliament Hill.

The heart of the comparison between Ignatieff and Trudeau is the notion that they are both men of ideas, philosopher kings who have graced the gritty game of politics with their very presence. Yet under closer scrutiny it quickly becomes apparent that while they may both be men of ideas, the ideas that matter to them are very different. More importantly, on those most important of ideas for Trudeau, the shape of federalism, the future of Quebec, and the influence of the United States, they disagree, and often profoundly so.

For example, in 2006, during his first campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, Ignatieff proposed that Canada ought to recognize Quebec as a nation. Astonishingly, one of his senior campaign officials, Alf Apps, published a letter in which he asserted that Trudeau would have supported Ignatieff’s position were he alive today. But Trudeau’s younger son, Alexandre, set the record straight, noting that anybody who thinks his father would have shared Ignatieff’s view on Quebec “couldn’t be more wrong,” and that it was “more objectionable still” to suggest that his father “would, like Ignatieff, deal in vacuous terms meant to appease emotions.”

Pierre Trudeau spent his entire political career trying to, as he once said, “put Quebec in its place, and that place is Canada.” As James Laxer writes, “Trudeau articulated a vision of a great country that could encompass multiple identities without succumbing to the poison of the exclusive nationalism of any of them.” Ignatieff, in contrast, seemed happy to inject the poison himself if it could help to win him the leadership of the party.

On federalism, Ignatieff talks a good game, affirming the importance of a strong central government. “Above all,” said a statement on his website during the 2008 leadership race, “Canadians want a federal government that protects the spine of equal citizenship that unites all Canadians, from coast to coast to coast.” Yet that same statement also made reference to the importance of respecting the constitutional and fiscal autonomy of the provincial governments, and his recent handling of a dissenting group of Newfoundland MPs showed that he’s far more willing to give ground to the provinces and those representing their issues than Trudeau ever would have been. This schizophrenic approach to federalism was reflected in a recent speech in which he said he wouldn’t give Quebec any more powers if he became Prime Minister because the federation was already sufficiently decentralized, but then added the view that this decentralization is “a good thing.”

On Canada’s relationship with the United States, Ignatieff is far less ambiguous. Trudeau famously observed that living next to the United States was like sleeping with an elephant, but it’s unlikely that Ignatieff shares that apprehension. The recent wave of Conservative ads included a snippet in which he used the first person plural pronoun to refer to Americans, and while it’s unlikely he’d do that today the very fact that he did it even once illustrates the place that the border separating the United States and Canada occupies in Michael Ignatieff’s imagination. Ignatieff’s support of George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, a war about which Trudeau would have been loudly critical were he alive to see it, is yet another indication of Ignatieff’s instinctive comfort with the American influence that Trudeau found so worrisome.

The biggest difference of all between the two men, though, isn’t in the views they hold on these issues, but how tightly they hold them. Trudeau rarely ever wavered during his sixteen years in office, holding firm to his views on Quebec nationalism, the importance of a strong central government, and the darker side of America’s influence on Canada. He held tight to these views through political crises, a minority government, and even a defeat at the hands of Joe Clark. Ignatieff, in contrast, seems willing to alter, adjust, or even abandon his views at even the slightest provocation. As Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne writes, “the question is not, what does Michael Ignatieff stand for? It is, what does he stand for now? It is not, what would he do in government? It is, what would he do differently?” Already, Ignatieff has changed his mind on the war in Iraq, the development of the oil sands in Alberta, and the propriety of the proposed coalition that nearly brought down Stephen Harper’s government last November, to name just a few. As Coyne observes, “so it is with much of Ignatieff’s oeuvre. They are views. But they are not positions.

Ignatieff’s decision to back down from a confrontation he himself precipitated just weeks ago over the Conservative government’s handling of the economy reinforces just how different he and Pierre Trudeau really are. His decision to force a confrontation over a supposed point of principle, only to back down meekly when it was no longer politically profitably to do so, was in every meaningful way the opposite of what Trudeau would have done in the same situation. Michael Ignatieff may be a good politician, and he may well become the next Prime Minister of Canada, but he’s not the next Pierre Trudeau.

Chetwynd, July 1, 2009 – 1,700 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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