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.

Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff greets supporters at a Liberal rally in Edmonton, Saturday.

For a man who has spent most of his adult life traveling the inner circles of British and American intelligentsia, Michael Ignatieff seems remarkably comfortable with the working class crowd that has gathered in a renovated train station in Canada’s steel manufacturing capital to meet him.

With the obligatory handshaking and baby-kissing out of the way, Canada's Liberal Party leader takes his place at the front of the room, tucks his open-collar shirt loosely into his pants, and walks the audience through his party’s platform, emphasizing middle class concerns such as education and money to care for elderly parents at home. Then he allows his patrician face to broaden into a smile and brings the house down with a child’s political joke about why the chicken crossed the road.

“He did it to avoid a debate,” Mr. Ignatieff says, taking a swipe at sitting Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to meet him one-on-one in a televised debate.

Six years after leaving his post as the influential and respected head of Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights, Canadian-born Ignatieff is finally getting a chance at the job he came home for – he is running to become Canada’s next prime minister.

But for all his ease in front of party supporters in places like Hamilton, Ignatieff is a long way from convincing Canadians his impeccable international credentials qualify him to lead the country. And he doesn't have much more time to make his case as Canadians vote on May 2.

'The United States way of thinking'

Dennis McLaren, a retired steelworker who came to the rally to protest the low level of his pension benefits, expresses a widespread view of the Liberal leader.

“He’s a carpetbagger. He drops from state to state. He’s come up from Harvard and Princeton, and now he’s up here in Canada. He’s been out of the country for 30 years and now he’s up here in Canada because he’s fed up with being a professor down there,” he said. “And what is he going to do for the country? Who knows. Maybe 30 years away is too long. Maybe he’s got the United States way of thinking.”

Polls reflect that sentiment. They show that although Ignatieff’s centrist Liberal Party, ranks second in popularity, just 10 points behind the governing center-right Conservatives, he sits a distant third in a ranking of candidates’ trustworthiness and leadership skills.

Mr. Harper is widely criticized for his autocratic nature and is facing serious questions about whether he misled parliament about government spending. But daily voter tracking by Nanos Research gives him an approval rating of 122.8. Jack Layton, who leads a party that is often considered a marginal force in Canadian politics, the socialist National Democratic Party, gets a rating of 57.3. Ignatieff comes in with 52.7 points and has only marginally improved his status since the start of the campaign.

His main problem, says pollster Nik Nanos, is that like the demonstrators outside the Hamilton rally, Canadians see Ignatieff as unpatriotic and suspect his motives for returning to Canada after spending more than 30 years making his name abroad.

"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.”

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.”

“He was very much the kind of person you’d expect in a salon in Back Bay Boston or on the Upper West Side of New York or in Cambridge or in Islington in London where those are the values,” says Mr. Duffy. “It’s about intelligence, quick-wittedness, a certain savoir faire, a command of a few extra languages, a good number of historical references and literary anecdotes. None of those things are valued in national Canadian politics. In fact, they cost you.”

With national elections looming, Ignatieff loosened up and learned to relate to ordinary folks during a cross-Canada bus tour of small-town barbecues and church basements last summer. At the end of the tour, it seemed that by adopting the language of the street and letting people poke and prod to see what he was made of, the former Harvard lecturer had finally found his stride in Canadian politics.

“It’s all about confidence and I think for Mr. Ignatieff, becoming leader as he did, this was a huge challenge,” says Dan Brock, one of the party insiders who recruited Ignatieff. “But he’s developed the confidence to get rid of the scripting and to be himself.”

Some of that transformation is paying off. Marsha Deschamps, a speech language pathologist from Hamilton, said she at first had doubts about Ignatieff but that he won her over with his focus on strengthening the Canadian health care system, one of the “pillars” of Canadian identity.

“I really feel bad for what Canada has done to him,” she said. “I think of him as a well educated and thoughtful man with a strong vision of where he wants to take us.”

Conservatives' attack

But Ignatieff is still burdened with a widespread perception that he is an outsider with dubious motives for coming home, an idea firmly planted in the Canadian psyche by a series of Conservative Party-sponsored attack ads that saturated prime time Canadian television over the winter. The ads say Ignatieff has publicly stated his love for the United States and conclude “Ignatieff, he didn’t come back for you,” or “Michael Ignatieff. Just visiting.”

The Liberals were short of money to place their own ads. On the campaign trail, Ignatieff has fought back by pointing out that Harper’s weak coalition government was forced into an election because of a finding it had misled parliament about the cost of building more jails and buying F-35 fighter jets from the US.

"The other thing that Mr. Harper does is the appeal to fear. ‘If I don’t get a big fat majority, that terrible, frightening, terrifying figure Michael Ignatieff might just become prime minister of Canada,' that’s what he’s telling Canadians,” he told the crowd in Hamilton. “I have many failings … but I don’t think I’m scary. I don’t think Canadians need to be scared of me, they don’t need to be scared of democracy and above all they don’t need to be scared of change.”

The pitch goes over well with audience members like Larry Shuh, a budget manager at a nearby university. “I saw, in spite of his intelligence, his track record, everything he’s done, I saw a modest man standing up there and I believed what he actually said,” says Mr. Shuh.

But even he can see Ignatieff has little hope of leading the next national government when Canadians vote May 2. “I don’t mean to say this negatively, but I think it’s going to take more than one election for him to win over Canada,” he says. “If he doesn’t make it this time I hope that he’s allowed the time to really develop into that role and let people know what he is.’

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