Michael Ignatieff: Canadian candidate struggles to prove his Canadianness
Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal Party candidate in Canada's May 2 election, lags far behind in the polls. His main problem: He spent too much time south of the border.
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"His personal journey has prepared him to be a very good candidate for Prime Minister, but the problem is few Canadians will ever see Mr. Ignatieff up close,” says Mr. Nanos, whose Nanos Research company tracks daily changes in voter sentiment. “The risk is seen as, ‘He’s been out of the country for a long time. What does he understand about Canada?’ That could be a parochial view, but it’s the view many people have.”Skip to next paragraph
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Expatriate thinker to rookie politician
Many Liberals viewed Ignatieff’s return to Canada six years ago as a long overdue chance for salvation. Then Liberal leader and Prime Minister Paul Martin had been badly bruised by controversy over a funding scandal in Quebec and the party had lost its sense of direction in the midst of political infighting.
Ignatieff boasted a pedigree as former BBC journalist, celebrated author of 17 books, outspoken promoter of human rights and liberal values, and the man whose eloquent writing and speeches helped convince the world to send military forces to protect Albanians in Kosovo. His good looks fueled fantasies of reviving a type of Trudeaumania – the frenzy that swept Canada in 1968 when its last intellectual prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, first ran to lead the Liberals.
After a long courtship by a handful of Liberal insiders that included former Trudeau guru Senator Keith Davey, Ignatieff returned to Toronto in 2005, in the hope that an apprenticeship as a member of parliament and cabinet minister would groom him to eventually take over as party leader and prime minister.
But the transition from expatriate thinker to rookie politician was far more difficult than even Ignatieff expected.
“I don’t know whether I’m up to it,” he told the Canadian daily The Globe and Mail in 2006. “I mean, I think I’m up to the job, but I don’t know whether I’m up to the price you have to pay.”
The Liberal Party lost power to the Conservatives shortly after Ignatieff’s arrival and spent months riven by intense infighting over who should replace Martin. Ignatieff came off as stiff and professorial and lost his first run at the leadership to the even less-inspiring Quebecker Stéphane Dion. When he finally replaced Mr. Dion in 2009, it was by acclamation.
John Duffy, a public policy analyst and communications adviser for one of Ignatieff’s chief rivals for the leadership, says Ignatieff paid a heavy price for mistakes born of inexperience in politics. “He had difficulty switching from language of Harvard Yard to the language of Walmart."
Shedding Harvard, embracing Walmart
Shortly after Ignatieff became Liberal Party leader, he was seen in a public television documentary eating breakfast in the elaborate dining room of his official residence, wearing a suit and tie and listening to opera. He told The New Yorker magazine that although “some of my best friends are cosmopolitans” he had gotten out of his system “a certain kind of cosmopolitanism that’s highly individualistic.”