An absentee Canadian? In defence of Ignatieff

By Cam Cotton-O\’Brien

Given the unbridled ambition involved in politics, there is a certain absurdity to a party suggesting that a rival politician is only in it for himself. But this absurdity is no deterrent, as the recent Conservative attack ads against Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff have shown.

With frequent scares of another federal election, the Conservatives have been broadcasting ads attacking the legitimacy of Ignatieff’s prime ministerial dreams. They focus in particular on the fact that Ignatieff has spent a significant portion of his life living and working outside of Canada, mostly in the U.K. and u.s.

The obvious argument discrediting such attacks is the one that Ignatieff himself hit on in his video response to the Conservative ads: questioning the assessment of one’s Canadianness. Given that Canada is such a prominent immigration destination and that many Canadian citizens were not born in this country, let alone spent all their lives here, it is problematic to suggest that these individuals, voters that they may be, are less Canadian than their stay-at-home counter parts. While this argument does hold to a certain extent, it is not entirely effective.

The Conservatives are saying that in Ignatieff’s particular case personal ambition drove his return to Canada in 2005. This does not necessarily mean that they are devaluing him as a Canadian, but challenging his fitness to lead the country as he is only following his own goals rather than acting in the best interest of Canadians.

Despite this apparently anemic argument there is a much stronger reason to disregard the Conservative attacks. One need only look at what Ignatieff was doing through his adult life to understand that he didn’t leave Canada because he didn’t feel strongly towards this country. As an academic, Ignatieff studied and taught at the top institutions around the world. From Oxford to Cambridge to Harvard, he worked alongside some of the most prestigious academics in the west. Ignatieff left Canada to work at the highest level possible in his field, not in order to disown the country.

It is also important to note the kind of work that Ignatieff was doing. Ignatieff not only studied under, but actually wrote Isaiah Berlin’s biography. As Berlin is one of the premier liberal theorists of the last century, it is clear that Ignatieff was intently engaged in studying western liberal democracy. This is again seen in the books he wrote throughout his academic career. That he was not in Canada the entire time does not immediately mean he is incapable of appropriately leading the country, nor necessarily that he is doing it solely for his own imperative. Having pondered the liberal democratic project at the highest level for many years, Ignatieff’s interest in running the country may be interpreted as his desire to apply the knowledge gained from such theoretical work.

Given how amorphous this country is, suggesting Canadians would rather a man from the west run the country than an Ontario man who was absent for a lengthy period is laughable at best. Downright hilarious when one realizes why he was absent for so long. Unless, of course, achieving at the highest level is undesirable in a leader.

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