Ignatieff’s summer of love

Behind the scenes of the Liberal leader’s cross-country bus tour
Aaron Wherry
Aaron Harris/Bloomberg/Getty Images/ Christopher Wahl

The 17-year-old girl from Sarnia, Ont., asked him if he had any advice for young Canadians who are “charting paths for themselves toward a productive future.” Behind him, the local candidate and a few Liberal MPs were positioned to fill the screen. Behind them a half dozen enthusiastic young Liberals stood where they were told. Behind them a steel drum band played.

This was an interview for MuchMusic on a street corner in downtown Toronto. The girl wasn’t one of the network’s regular hosts. She’d written her questions on a piece of paper and she addressed him politely as Mr. Ignatieff. He hasn’t yet lost the urge to satisfy his interviewer and so he went on at some length, recalling some words he’d offered years ago at a university commencement.

“The thing I’ve learned is life is long, but you’ve only got one life,” he said. “And so you live it for yourself. You’re not doing this for your mom, you’re not doing this for your dad, you’re not doing this for your best friend, you’re not doing this for someone you admire, you’re doing this for yourself. And if you’ve only got one life. then live it, full tilt, full on, pedal to the metal. It means you have to take some risks. There are a lot of things that are worse than failure. You’ve got to put it on the line occasionally. And I learned that. And so you want to get to the end of it, when you’re older, thinking, I did it all and I did it my way—if you’ll allow the cliché.”

A week later, in conversation somewhere between London, Ont., and Windsor, Ont., he will shrug away any suggestion his words that day were applicable to his situation. But here would seem to be a mantra for this summer-by-bus. A man who has often seemed so burdened—competing from the outset with his own caricature, tormented by a ruthlessly efficient political machine, beleaguered by the hyperactive tawdriness of Ottawa, charged with dragging a stagnant party into a new century—seems suddenly lighter. He is taking risks, he is tempting failure. Whatever the end may ultimately be, he would seem intent now on doing it all.

With the interview soon thereafter done, a woman in yellow, a sash proclaiming her the calypso queen of Toronto’s Caribana festival, beckons him to dance to the steel drums and soon he is twisting and shuffling in passing relation to the rhythm. After a minute of this, a conga line breaks out and suddenly Ignatieff and the calypso queen are leading a procession of dancing Liberals. Smiling and hopping, they make their way to the waiting bus, bound for a barbecue in Thornhill.

Between July 13 and Sept. 8, Michael Ignatieff will have spent 43 days on the road, covering all 10 provinces and three territories. His staff have so far scheduled approximately 130 public events. If the present pattern holds, he will arrive, disembark and wade into crowds of a couple dozen or a few hundred. He will shake every hand that is extended and coo over every small child that is presented. He will sign his name to copies of his own books and pictures of himself and scraps of paper. He will pat the shoulders of old men and gawky teenagers; people will put their arms around him and he will stand and pose and smile for as many pictures as are requested.

Except where a plane is required, he will be transported by a bus wrapped in red and white and emblazoned with the words “Liberal Express.” The bus will stop as many as five or six times each day and it will stop anywhere there is an impression to be made. In Stoney Creek, Ont., Ignatieff steps behind the counter of the local dairy and serves mint chocolate chip and butterscotch ripple to a winding line of supporters. In Burlington, Ont., he stands in the parking lot of a suburban mall and rallies local Liberals. In Thornhill, Ont., he practises his stump speech while, nearby, children bounce around in an inflatable castle. Overlooking a mud pit in Essex County, Ont., he is given the honour of dropping the green flag to open the third heat of the Comber Agricultural Fair’s demolition derby.

“I think this is driven by a very traditional sense of what politics is. [Events like] the pancake breakfast in Cupids, Nfld.—we’ve been doing this since Laurier, since Macdonald,” he says. “It’s all about trust. I feel best when it’s eye-to-eye, handshake-to-handshake.”

Crucially, none of these places are Ottawa. There are no Conservative talking points to refute, there is no self-possessed press gallery to please, no government legislation to twist oneself in knots over, no fascination of the day to chase or be chased by. And if he seems happier here, it’s because, he says, this is the part of the job he took to first. “You’d be missing the point if this was some ‘new me,’ ” he says. “Nothing’s being invented here. If it was a constant exercise in elaborate pretense, that would be exhausting. But it’s not. I’m having fun.”

This is an exercise in many things. The bus is a simple gimmick for the media to follow. The tour, with Liberal MPs in tow, is a team-building exercise (and it has sufficiently roused the Liberal caucus that something like optimism is being reported). The leader is said to be finding his voice. Riding associations are being rallied, local candidates are being promoted, the staff is being tested in preparation for a campaign. And he, contrary to the conquering hero he was first hailed as and the scheming villain he has since been made out to be, is demonstrating himself to be human. “I was laughing yesterday because people are saying, ‘You look better than you look on TV,’ ” he says.

At most stops, after he has waded through the crowd for a while, he will be called to the microphone to speak. Though the gist of each speech is the same, he speaks without a script, sometimes rambling, but often turning fiery. He will mostly spend his 20 or so minutes on stage contrasting himself with the other guy—Stephen Harper as the calculating, divisive, cynic who doesn’t believe in government, Michael Ignatieff as the big-thinking, doing-politics-differently leader of a future government that cares. He will explore all examples of strife and discord, from Richard Colvin to prorogation to the G20 summit to the census. Stephen Harper, he will note, wants to cut corporate taxes and spend billions on fighter jets and prisons, while the Liberal leader wants early learning for pre-schoolers and home care for the elderly. That is the pitch. And the medium, too, is the message: while Harper has been mostly unseen this summer, here is Ignatieff, in jeans and a checked shirt, not even a lectern between him and the people. “I think it’s going particularly well, because Harper has been such a great foil this summer,” says a senior Liberal.

“I’m having fun and they’re making mistakes,” Ignatieff says. He pauses, then corrects himself. “They’re not making mistakes,” he says. “It’s more complicated than that. They are revealing who they are. And that’s, frankly, a gift. We’re going to get to a clearer and fairer choice. That’s what I feel good about.

It’s getting clearer.” Indeed, if the heavy atmosphere of Parliament Hill often seems to shrink differences, on the stump, in this summer of the census, there seems increasingly to be a very real difference between how the two view the role and place of the state—a difference of the sort that could foretell a profoundly philosophical election.

But the summer is not endless and Ottawa is unavoidable. How to carry what’s happening here to what goes on there is, that senior Liberal says, a good question. A draft of the Liberal platform should be done before the fall and there may be policy announcements to follow. Ignatieff hopes he can return to the road as much as possible. Asked to explain the difference between the man he is here and the man he is on Parliament Hill, he laughs. “Well, I better figure that out,” he says. “I think I’ll go back to Ottawa and I just think it’s simple: lighten up. I’ll go back to Ottawa with a smile on my face.”