Michael Ignatieff: Is he too ambitious to become Canada's prime minister?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 29 2011 3:15 PM

Worthwhile Canadian Candidate

Michael Ignatieff may want to be prime minister too much for Canadians to give it to him.

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No one has captured the culture of suspicion toward Ignatieff types in the Canadian hinterlands quite so well as Alice Munro. In her second book, Lives of Girls and Women, her alter ego, Del, watches two aunts mock their neighbor's new husband at an introductory dinner:

"Oh, the law-yer!" cried Aunt Elspeth elegantly, and leaning across the table inquired, "Have you always—been interested—in country life?" After their marvelous courtesy to him I found this faintly chilling; it was a warning. Didn't he think he was somebody! That was their final condemnation, lightly said. He thinks he's somebody. Don't they think they're somebody. Pretensions were everywhere.

Not that they were against ability. They acknowledged it in their own family, our family. But it seemed the thing to do was keep it more or less a secret. Ambition was what they were alarmed by, for to be ambitious was to court failure and to risk making a fool of oneself.

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The aunts then brag about their talented brother, who they claim could have sat in the province's Cabinet. "Didn't he get elected?" Del asks. "Don't be silly, he never ran," Aunt Elspeth replies.

Under the Conservative barrage, Ignatieff no doubt often wished he hadn't either. But there's wisdom, too, in the fears of small towns. A mistrust of ambition holds a country to one war instead of two or three; it keeps national banks from gorging on mortgage-backed securities. And it helps sort out the leaders from the carpetbaggers.

The Conservatives were smart to smear Ignatieff as the latter, but whether they were right remains to be seen. Examples of his vanity abound, to be sure—this is a man who once posed, in a raffish pink suit, for the cover of GQ's U.K. edition. And he did make a fool of himself as one of the leading thinkers to support the Iraq War. Yet his otherwise illustrious international career was grounded in the values of the country he left behind in 1969. One of the downsides to shying away from ambition is that you can also be quick to abandon your ideals—and back then, Canada prided itself on being internationally oriented, morally engaged, and spiritually generous. The international community has found Harper's Canada to have these qualities in shorter supply.

Only recently, however, did Liberal ads start forcefully drawing these connections for the Canadian public. To Ignatieff's credit, he was more concerned the past two years with behaving like a candidate for small-town mayor. After becoming Liberal leader, he rapped on more doors, waved from more busses, and convened more town halls than his opponents (prompting this attack ad from the leftist NDP). He tried extremely hard to convince wary Canadians that he wants to work for them, and that all the congratulations in Cambridge couldn't have kept him from coming back.

Monday's results may tell Ignatieff that his failure to connect with Canadians has been total. It's possible he'll decide to step down as Liberal leader, or that his party will turf him. There's also an outside chance he'll become prime minister anyway, if the Liberals do better than expected and the Conservatives get another minority but fail to win the confidence of the House. If he leaves politics, his legacy will be "Michael Ignatieff: just visiting." If he becomes prime minister without winning an election—a legitimate maneuver, but one many Canadians would find unsavory—it will be "Michael Ignatieff: just in it for himself."

He'd do better to keep knocking on doors, if he can. He may not be facing total rejection, so much as the Aunt Elspeth test. Have you always—been interested—in country life? If Ignatieff wants Canadians to believe the answer is yes, he'll fight to stick around. We sweat, Munro writes, for our pretensions.

Jeremy Keehn is a former senior editor at The Walrus magazine in Toronto. He now works in New York.

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