Things are looking good these days for Michael Ignatieff. As he approaches his formal coronation as federal Liberal leader at the party's convention beginning April 30 in Vancouver, his party is flying high in the polls and he's recently been the subject of fawning national-media coverage.
His new book, True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada (Viking Canada, $30), is helping recast his image from that of a globetrotting, quixotic, cosmopolitan, intellectual elitist to a man with deep roots in this country.
The opening to Ignatieff's book—which tells the story of his maternal great-grandfather, maternal grandfather, and mother's brother—carries the audacious title "On the Love of Country". He describes this as "an emotion shared in the imagination across time, shared with the dead, the living and the yet to be born". A country begins to die, he notes, when "order disintegrates, when people cease to trust their fellow citizens or their government"—and "when people think life is elsewhere and begin to leave".
"To be a patriot in the modern age is to be in a perpetual argument with cosmopolitans," Ignatieff adds. "The best argument on the cosmopolitan side is that no allegiance—certainly no national identity—ought to claim all of a person. A true patriot should learn from these arguments."
True Patriot Love, his 16th book, is a rejoinder to his critics who have suggested that Ignatieff, who spent nearly 30 years of his adult life living abroad, is somehow not quite Canadian enough to become prime minister.
In a recent phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Ignatieff noted that he began the book in 2000 while retracing the journey of his great-grandfather George Monro Grant, who travelled across Canada in 1872 with railway engineer Sandford Fleming to survey a route for a transcontinental railway. "I'm in this funny business of having started a book before I was in politics, and I'm finishing it in politics," Ignatieff said. "I think the intentions that drove me originally are still the intentions I've got, but obviously people will read into it what they want."
Ignatieff said that he tried to demonstrate in the chapter on George Monro Grant that the national dream of a railway to unite the country coincided with the demise of efforts of others to preserve the West as Métis, aboriginal, and French-speaking. "It only slowly dawned upon him that the triumph of his dream would be the death of another people's dreams," he said. "And so I don't think that the chapter or the book is triumphalist at all about this. Every time we achieve one dream, we tend to achieve it at the expense of other people. We need to be aware of that and we need to face every aspect of our history honestly."
Ignatieff also portrays Grant, an unabashed fan of the British Empire and a principal of Queen's University, as a man concerned about the treatment of Chinese Canadian railway labourers. "One of the reasons I've got a lot of respect for my great-grandfather is that he very specifically and at some length denounced the exploitation of Chinese labour and the exclusion from citizenship and the head tax and all that stuff," he said.
The next section focuses on his maternal grandfather, William Lawson Grant, who was wounded in the Battle of the Somme in the First World War and who later became principal of a prestigious boys' school, Upper Canada College. Ignatieff writes about the First World War in romantic terms, describing the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a nation-changing event.
"It was a moment when we accomplished something incredibly difficult and hard, and surprised ourselves doing it," he said, "but it came at a terrible cost for many Canadians."
Ignatieff's uncle, George Grant, an academic best known for his 1965 book Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, is the focus of the following section. Ignatieff said that he loved his uncle but they profoundly disagreed on political issues. Grant was a red Tory who hated liberalism. Ignatieff's chapter tries to prove that Grant was wrong when he claimed that Canada exchanged the bonds of the British Empire for being sucked into the American empire.
When asked how Grant might react to the book were he alive today, Ignatieff replied: "George was a very warm-tempered character. He might well throw the book across the room. After he has thrown the book across the room, he would bellow at me that I was some sellout, a dreadful American liberal, and then we would embrace and argue about other things."
In his book, Ignatieff chose not to go further back into his maternal family history. He doesn't mention that his great-great-great-grandfather William Lawson was a member of the Nova Scotia house of assembly from 1806 to 1836 and sat as a member of the legislative council from 1838 to 1845. He was also the first president of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Ignatieff explained that he wanted to write a book about the Grants' idea of Canada rather than a family history. "I rather like having a bank president back there," he quipped. "Certainly, it may be the only time in my family's history that we made any money—that's for sure."
He closes the book with a chapter called "The Inheritance", which focuses on how Canada can maintain its identity and sovereignty in the age of globalization. "This is a world where decisions about who gets work and who doesn't, who prospers and who goes hungry, are made not by governments directly, but by the forces of a market that no single government or empire either controls or fully understands," he writes. "But government does still matter. Countries with good government can master globalization; countries with bad government will be its victims."
He goes on to write: "Patriotism—enduring, impatient, non-ironic belief in the promise of the land you love—is the single greatest asset of successful societies."
A cynic might view the book as Ignatieff's attempt to blunt attacks from the Conservatives that having been out of the country for so long, he is less Canadian than Prime Minister Stephen Harper. When asked how he would respond to this type of attack from Harper in a televised debate, Ignatieff replied: "I'll say Mr. Harper doesn't get to define who is a good Canadian, number one. Number two, close to a million Canadians at any given time are living and working outside of Canada. Are we going to say a million Canadians are less-good Canadians than those people who've never stepped outside? Third, I'll say: 'You know, Mr. Harper's never worked or lived outside of Canada.”¦he would have been a better prime minister for it.' Fourth, I'll say: 'You know, 20 percent of our population were born in other countries. Are we to say, you know, Canadians who've had huge and extensive experience overseas in their birth countries are less-good Canadians?' I mean, let's just get beyond this. I'm a proud Canadian. I never held a passport from any other country."
But the question lingers: is Ignatieff still locked into the American empire, as suggested by retired political scientist Denis Smith in Ignatieff's World Updated: Iggy Goes to Ottawa? The Liberal leader certainly has his American connections. In his interview with the Straight, Ignatieff described journalist and author Samantha Power, a former staff member in the office of then-senator Barack Obama, as a "close friend of mine". Ignatieff and Power, author of A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2003), worked together at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.
Ignatieff and Obama, who is a Harvard alumnus, had a friendly get-together during the U.S. president's brief visit to Canada last February. They have both made hawkish comments about Afghanistan. And Obama has ratcheted up rhetoric about Pakistan as a base of terrorism. There have also been reports of unmanned U.S. Predator aerial attacks on Pakistani soil since Obama became president.
In the 1960s, the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson escalated a war in Vietnam, urged on by advisers from top Ivy League universities, including Harvard. Ignatieff acknowledged to the Straight that "Harvard people can screw up as comprehensively as any other kind of people," but he suggested that he's not working with Obama to broaden the Afghanistan war into neighbouring Pakistan.
"Look, when I met Mr. Obama and we discussed Afghanistan, what we actually said was: 'We're drifting. We don't know what the mission is. We don't know what we can accomplish here,' " Ignatieff said. "It wasn't us sitting down and saying, 'Let's, you know, let's commit both of our countries for the next 20 years.' "
He added that Canadian troops should never be used for occupation, aggression, or conquest. "Canadian troops should always be used wherever possible only with UN Security Council approval," Ignatieff said.
One of Ignatieff's harshest critics, retired University of Pennsylvania finance professor Edward Herman, has described the Liberal leader as "a skilled trimmer who has adjusted his thoughts and principles to the demands of the U.S. and Canadian power elite, and advanced accordingly". (Herman has also criticized Power, who writes about genocide, for overlooking incidents in which the U.S. was a major contributor.)
"One would have thought it might be problematical for a professor of human rights to vigorously support two wars (Kosovo, Iraq) carried out in violation of the UN Charter and hence 'supreme crimes' in the view of the judges at Nuremberg," Herman wrote in a 2006 essay. "These two wars of aggression also resulted in serial war crimes, such as the regular bombing of civilian sites and the use of illegal weapons such as cluster bombs, napalm, phosphorus and depleted uranium, that should have been anathema to a devotee of human rights. But these matters didn't bother Ignatieff, who was troubled only by the lag in initiation of NATO violence in the Balkans and the ineffectiveness and mismanagement of the occupation of Iraq."
Left-wing icon Noam Chomsky, who has cowritten a book with Herman, has claimed that Ignatieff's justifications for international intervention echo "very familiar rhetoric" of others throughout history who've invoked democracy and human rights as justifications for imperial military adventures.
When confronted with Herman's accusation that he's a "skilled trimmer", Ignatieff replied: "Well, I don't waste a tremendous amount of time worrying about what either he or Noam Chomsky says about me."
Ignatieff added that he has "stood like a rock" for the idea that when any ethnic group is faced with massacre, torture, or mass expulsion, western military forces should be used to protect them "from being chopped into little bits".
"I haven't trimmed that once," he said. "I was part of the International Commission on Sovereignty and Intervention that elaborated the doctrine of the responsibility to protect."
One man's responsibility to protect is another man's imperialism. But one thing is clear: with his latest book, Ignatieff's opponents will have a tougher time attacking him in the future for not being sufficiently Canadian to become prime minister.