Michael Ignatieff’s Quebec problem

The Liberal leader hasn’t made too many friends in La Belle Province
Ryan Remiorz/CP

Michael Ignatieff’s first pseudo-campaign through Quebec as Liberal leader was a glitzy affair during which he pontificated on bloodlines, belonging and “the act of imagination” involved in loving a country like Canada—ideals culled from his then-just-published tome True Patriot Love. His current so-called Liberal Express tour was decidedly more pedestrian; at an old age home in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil recently, Ignatieff listened as a handful of seniors and municipal politicians kvetched about bridge traffic, airport noise and the lack of recreational facilities. Macaroons and apple juice were served.

So goes the transformation from public intellectual to politician—one that, according to polls, hasn’t been altogether smooth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quebec, a province crucial to Liberal fortunes in the next election. Ignatieff remains bogged down by party infighting and an enduring struggle to get out from under the sponsorship scandal that nearly decimated the Liberals in 2006. According to online poll aggregator Three Hundred Eight, the Liberals have dipped 12 percentage points in Quebec over the last 16 months.

How fortunes change. Quebec, arguably more than any other province, embraced Ignatieff’s arrival on the federal scene. His intellectual credentials were hardly a hindrance in the province that voted for Pierre Trudeau, Robert Bourassa and Jacques Parizeau, among other well-schooled leaders. The Bloc Québécois felt threatened enough to denounce Ignatieff repeatedly during his 2006 tour, and a fervently sovereignist publisher rushed out a quick book/hit job on the leader. Sovereignists were right to be scared: Quebecers, polls indicated, would likely return to the soft left folds of the Liberal party were its leader charismatic enough to wash away the stink of the sponsorship scandal.

Yet a well-publicized spat with Quebec lieutenant Denis Coderre showed how tenuous Liberal fortunes remain. Coderre, a peerless organizer, stepped down from his position when Ignatieff overruled his choice for a candidate in the Liberal stronghold of Outremont, now held by the NDP. Though Coderre remains in the Liberal fold, his skills as lieutenant will be missed.

Ignatieff hasn’t done himself any favours on policy either. A Conservative private member’s bill calling for the end of the country’s long-gun registry—which has support in Quebec—passed thanks in part to a handful of Liberal votes. Though he voted against the bill himself, Ignatieff failed to compel his MPs to do the same. (The Liberal leader says he will do so in a second vote in September.) “I’ve heard many people compare Ignatieff to Paul Martin,” says Bloc MP Pierre Paquette. “When he was running for leader he looked like the ideal candidate, but not so good once he got into power.”

Quebecers, Ignatieff says, can expect to see more of him in the coming year. “The best thing you can do is show up,” he said as he exited the Longueuil old folks’ home. “An old lady just came up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘I want to believe in you.’ The only way to do this is to show up and show respect.”

Ignatieff then jogged on the spot for a moment. According to an aide, he often does this to regain his energy. Certainly, he’s going to need it.