New national dreams

Michael Ignatieff talks with Kenneth Whyte about how personal history fuelled his political vision

Q: Your new book, True Patriot Love, is in part an exploration of Canada, but also an exploration of your family and your family’s past in Canada. What led you to these subjects?

A: I previously wrote a book about the Russian side of my family, the Ignatieffs, but my mother’s people, who were Grants and Parkins originally from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, had an interesting story to tell, starting with a great-grandfather who helped to lay out the line for the transcontinental railroad, a grandfather who fought at the Somme, and my uncle who wrote Lament for a Nation. So when I began the book I thought I’m just going to write about that great-grandfather and his trip across the country. Before I knew it, I was writing a history of Canada seen through the eyes of one family.

Q: You talk about how our sense of our country, our patriotism, is an act of the imagination. Is that the case for every country?

A: You know, my wife’s Hungarian. In Hungary it’s not what it’s like: you’re born a Hungarian and pretty well everybody in Hungary is Hungarian, and so it’s a set of emotions that are tied to ethnicity and language. In Canada it’s just our multiple origins and our complexity—and our sheer size and our intense regionalism—means that when you think of Canada you have to make a part stand for the whole. So you’re always engaged in some act of the imagination—and our realities are that the linguistic divide means that Quebecers see through a different lens, Aboriginal communities see through a different lens—and what I like about our country is we’ve managed somehow, despite [seeing] it through a different lens, to sometimes see or imagine the same place.

Q: When I think of my sense of Canada and patriotism, it’s based not so much on imagination as experience, that you grow up in a place, you experience something like Expo ’67 and the ’72 Canada/Russia series, and that shapes your sense of what the country is and what it means.

A: You have to experience the country. You have to experience coming out of the forest cover of eastern Manitoba and opening up on the plains. I always stop the car. Or that moment when you drive out of Calgary and you suddenly see the foothills, especially at sunset, or Antigonish, the headlands. It has to be based on experience, but the imagination goes to work on experience. For me, those couple of moments are Canada, and you will have your own. The moment of going to Vimy Ridge was an enormous moment of affirmation in Canada, which took me by surprise, because it was these teenagers coming down the hill singing O Canada. Our patriotic feeling is also fuelled by anger or a sense of, “This would be a great country if,” you know, “fewer Aboriginal children were taken into care, if more Aboriginal Canadians finished high school, if we could stop this kind of horror of kids freezing to death in a reserve.” That feeling of disappointment, that feeling of anger, that feeling of shame, is a patriotic emotion, and it’s part of being a citizen of a country. I’m trying to create a space for patriotism. I think some Canadians are a little wary of the very word—for good reasons—but there is a kind of patriotism which is not “my country right or wrong,” it’s “my country and I wish it were right.”

Q: It seems, though, that if you understand patriotism as fundamentally an act of the imagination rather than an act of experience, there are consequences to that.

A: Well, you know, you can’t do anything you want with this country: it’s not that malleable. British institutions, two official languages, three founding mythologies, or more, situated in an austere and beautiful place in the top of North America, next to the Americans. This is a book about how stubbornly enduring some of our realities are.

Q: But you still want to lay down a gauntlet of sorts, challenging Canadians to reimagine their country and to take it as the tenet of their citizenship to reimagine Canada again, and that’s an ambitious sense of patriotism.

A: When I began writing this book we didn’t have an $80-billion deficit, but I think one of the things that I get out of this—the story I tell in the book—is we were in a long secular depression in Canada in the late ’70s, early 1880s, when we finished the biggest piece of public infrastructure we’ve ever tried to do before or since. We have been capable of extraordinary acts of vision in very adverse circumstances, and we should never forget that.

Q: There is a school of thought in Canada that the rhetoric of nationalism and patriotism has been the way by which one region either exploits or suppresses another. Do you think it’s possible to have an enhanced nationalism or patriotism without running up against those often very legitimate regional concerns?

A: I don’t see a contradiction between regionalism and national patriotism. I’ve said in Quebec, for three years now, that a Liberal vision of patriotism recognizes that Canadians choose their allegiances in the order that suits them best, and that’s how it’s always worked. This is not even especially particular to Quebec. There are people who are just British Columbians first and Canadians second, and then there are some British Columbians who are Canadians first and British Columbians second. And I’ve said, what a Liberal vision of patriotism is that we offer you the choice of belonging in the order that you choose, and we don’t ask you to choose between [them]. I’ve always felt that my moral objection to sovereigntism is that it forces a population to choose its allegiance in ways that for 140 years Quebecers actually have not wanted to be forced to do. So that’s why I’m a very convinced federalist, because I think that the federalism—and therefore the patriotism—to which I’m attached says, “Proud Nova Scotian first? Proud Newfoundlander first? Fine. But let’s find in our hearts a place for Canada.”

One of things that is very striking—and now I’m in my political hat—is when you’re in town halls, you can warm your hands on the Canadian patriotism, on the attachment to a national project. It’s very strong. But we’ve never believed in a patriotism that was “my country right or wrong,” we’ve never believed in nationalness to the exclusion of others. And the fundamental reason is we speak two languages. Everything else follows from that: two worlds, two linguistic worlds, living side by side in the same country. Everything about who we are falls from that: how we think about identity, how we think about all the other multicultural groups that have come into the country since, the identities we encourage them to hold onto—it all starts from Macdonald and Cartier and these guys sitting there in 1866 saying, “How do we put this together?” The genius of Macdonald was to understand “treat them as a nation and they will behave as a nation, treat them as a faction, they’ll behave as a faction,” and understanding that this duality was the fact around which we had to build everything: our understanding of law, our understanding of the constitution, our understanding of identity, our understanding of patriotism, our understanding of citizenship. And, you know, it came out pretty well.

Q: Your great-grandfather was involved in the building of the transcontinental railroad and you advocate a variety of measures that we might consider to strengthen the east-west ties, everything from high-speed rail to energy pipelines. What’s the appeal, to you, of that sort of east-west nation-building?

A: I think first of all that my basic understanding of the forces in Canada are that we have five regional economies that are heavily integrated north-south; that’s how the country works economically, and that’s fine. The north-south integration of our economy is a fact, and a good fact, and a positive fact, but we’ve always balanced that. Canadian identity is a balancing act between the north-south pulls and the east-west pulls, and the fundamental issue of Canadian politics is always the east-west ties of steel and citizenship being strong enough to offset the north-south. I’m saying that within the limits of the possible, strengthening the east-west would be a good idea. I’m not irrevocably wedded to any particular way of doing that, for the reason that we got an $80-billion deficit. So you gotta sew your garment from the cloth you’ve got. But I’m very struck, when I look at high-speed rail between Quebec City and Windsor, how much Canadians who disagree about many issues want that to happen. Quebec and Ontario want that to happen.

Q: It’s kind of amazing it hasn’t been done.

A: They want the regional economic development it brings along the core. It would pull 60 per cent of the population base of the country together in one shared infrastructure link, it would be environmentally sustainable, it’d be an environmentally friendly form of transport, and we happen to have one of the best makers of high-speed railway equipment in the world. Of course it’s expensive, it’s very expensive. That’s why when we can do it, how we phase it—those are political questions, but this is not a political manifesto. Danny Williams [recently] announced that he was wheeling power through Quebec to the northeastern market—U.S. market—for the first time in four years. I thought, “Hooray!” That’s east-west to the northeast market as opposed to Newfoundland and Labrador having to ship it over the straits and down through Massachusetts. I have some preference for strengthening that, ditto Manitoba-Ontario. But you have to have a business case, and it’s not obvious what the federal role here is. One of the things that strikes me increasingly, which wasn’t apparent to me when I wrote the book, is tying access to Employment Insurance to regional unemployment rates has created extremely wide variation in access to what is a common benefit. So, for nation-building purposes as well as economic stimulus and economic relief you might think, “Well, let’s go to a national standard.” That would be an example of strengthening, in my view, citizenship, not just economic policy.

Q: If we haven’t done the east-west project to this point, and all of the market forces are indeed pulling north and south, is it really necessary? Maybe the fact that our initial nation-building project, the railroad, is now something of a relic, and the fact that the Trans-Canada Highway is a two-lane death trap for great swatches, maybe we don’t need grand projects to shape our sense of ourselves.

A: I respect that, but I also see examples where you give Canadians something that they didn’t passionately want, and then when you give it to them they really turn out to want it a lot. I mean, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be an example. Now there are a lot of Canadians who think that’s definitional of who we are. Another much smaller example, I don’t think many Canadians noticed—in 1967—that we put up all those plaques in two official languages about our national history, and we did that right across the country, and when I did the tour with Zsuzsanna I was very struck by how good they were.

Q: National parks are another example.

A: Well, exactly, and expanding them and increasing the percentage of our national territory that’s preserved for future generations just strikes me as being a terrific thing to do, even though at any given moment no one’s pining for another national park somewhere very far away, but it then becomes part of the things we hold in common and we value in common. But if I can get political just for a second, the whole country thinks we need infrastructure investment and stimulus. Well, all I’m saying is why don’t we do some nation-building while we’re at it? I do think having these big continental things that pull us together matter, and I think twinning the Trans-Canada so people don’t kill themselves in northern Ontario and interior B.C. is, if you gotta choose—and governing is choosing—I’d put it there.

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