BTC: Ignatieff, the director's cut

On assignment for the magazine, I spent much of last Saturday following Michael Ignatieff around the suburbs west of Toronto. The official version of events appears in this week’s issue (see here). 

Owing to space constraints, a few anecdotes and some of our conversation was cut from the piece. If you should be so interested, here’s a slightly longer version.


At an outdoor job fair on a street corner in west Toronto, beside tables bearing free chocolate chip cookies, Michael Ignatieff climbs on a makeshift stage and publicly states his support for the local butcher, among other local amenities. He keeps his remarks short and then gets to shaking hands. There’s a guy wearing a t-shirt that helpfully instructs, “Don’t feed the bears” and a gentleman dressed all in black, owner of a local pub, whose hat identifies him as “100% Newfie” and who will walk away muttering to himself after Ignatieff’s assistant interrupts. Ignatieff moves on, letting a stranger put sunscreen on his arms, talking to a woman recruiting volunteers for the Santa Claus parade and buying a book from a disabled man.

A moment later—Ignatieff walks fast, long arms dangling from his shoulders—he’s across the street. He runs into the Newfie again. Then a young boy playing the violin. Then his rival—a toothy young man in a suit—from the NDP. Then a woman from the Humane Society. Then some firefighters.

He likes this. Say it’s the “realest” part of his job. He appears genuine in his interest, squaring up to each person, looking them in the eye, laughing and gesturing as they talk. Many seem to have met him before. None of which would perhaps be all that interesting if it weren’t so at odds with what is generally believed about Michael Ignatieff.

“I don’t have to put it on, I enjoy meeting people,” he says later. “I enjoy the sense of being finished with abstractions. I’ve talked politics all my life, this is politics. You sit in someone’s front room, you listen to them, you try to figure out what they’re really saying, what they really want. You come in with a bunch of ideas, maybe they’re too abstract, and you get cut right down to what you can deliver on the doorstep. It’s very real. If my political career ended tomorrow, and it could, and I went back to teaching, I would teach everything differently. It would just be totally different.”

For sure, it is understood implicitly that Michael Ignatieff is a politician and, therefore, must politic like all the rest. But otherwise, Ignatieff is only ever discussed as being above or below this. He is either the Harvard intellectual with Russian royalty in his blood and Canadian aristocracy to his name, still inspiring young men from Harvard to follow him around, knocking on doors in the suburbs. Or he is the brooding Machiavelli, conspiring in the shadows to overthrow Stephane Dion. He is either the Liberal party’s greatest asset. Or its leader’s most shamelessly conniving rival. (Or maybe both.)

In a campaign office at the end of an Etobicoke strip mall, he is only the candidate, albeit one with arty campaign banners bearing his likeness and signature font. His wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, works the front desk, greeting volunteers. His brother works the phones. There are lawn signs piled high in the backroom, colour-coded maps of the riding on the wall and pans of lasagna laid out for lunch.

Ignatieff pauses to eat, then he’s back in a volunteer’s car and, after a short drive, strolling around a leafy neighbourhood. A man leaning on his pick-up truck wants to talk about gas prices. A woman has a problem with her tax filing, Ignatieff promises to have his office call. One old man with a walker growls and waves him away. He commends a young couple on their veranda. A Polish woman invites him inside to talk about snow removal. While he walks, he talks thoughtfully of what it is he does now for a living. But he is tactfully self-deprecating. “I might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to politics,” he tells one constituent.

Whatever his attempts to undermine his own reputation, it is resilient. Late last week, after a quiet start to the national campaign, Ignatieff and the other perceived usurper Bob Rae appeared at Dion’s side. Their appearance was immediately interpreted as an explicit attempt to lend eloquence and charisma to the floundering Liberal leader. And this was then reported as nothing less than a plot to “outshine” the party’s candidate. “They know full well that they are doing. It’s obvious,” huffed one of the 300 anonymous senior strategists who populate the Liberal party.

Back at the campaign headquarters, in a small office with two televisions buzzing in the corner, Ignatieff is serious now, but talkative and blunt. “Look, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you do … and they would say that, wouldn’t they?” he says. “I mean, my view of this is that Dion has benefited from 18 months of considerably greater unity in the party than, say, Turner enjoyed or that Chretien enjoyed. I can’t say it often enough. I had a millisecond to react to defeat in December 2006, on live television, in real time. And I made a strategic decision in that millisecond that the right thing to do in every meaning of the word right thing to do, was … that the party had made its choice. Was I happy with the choice? No. Because I wanted to win. But the party made its choice and I’ve stood with the guy ever since. And I’m working eight, ten, twelve hours of day, sometimes in my own riding, sometimes in others, to get this guy elected. So whoever’s starting this stuff should just shut up. It actually makes me angry. I’m fed up with it. I’ve been dealing with it for 18 months and I actually want it to stop.”

Does he fear that his own loyalists are perhaps not so supportive? “I don’t think the problems that the party has nationally have anything to do with Michael Ignatieff. Anymore than I think that we lost Outremont because Michael Ignatieff didn’t put his oar in. This stuff is just, this stuff isn’t serious, right?” he says. “I’ve made it very clear to everybody who supported me in 2006 that we have one objective. Which is to make this guy the Prime Minister of Canada. People forget, I’m not … I’d like to be a minister in a Liberal government. I would. And, you know, do that for awhile and then do something else. But the point is, we’re in a situation where it actually doesn’t matter what the hell I say. People will write what they write. And, frankly, they can go to hell. I really, I’m pissed. I’m pissed about it. I’ve given absolutely exemplary loyalty from beginning to end and if people don’t like it or don’t believe it, there’s frankly nothing I can do about it.”

The conversation pauses as his wife comes in to get something off the desk. Then discussion turns to the relationship between the himself and Dion. “He’s aware of the dynamic. I’m aware of the dynamic,” Ignatieff says. “You know, my position on this is simply, if he calls me, if the national campaign calls me, I’ll play. If they want me to do something else, I’ll do something else. But I’m not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. So I put together on my own tour, based simply on people phoning me up and saying would you come out because we’re in a tight race and you might make a difference. I don’t actually think I make much difference. This is not me playing faux modesty, I think the ticket rises and sinks with the leader and with the policies. I help where I can, but I think my impact is marginal. I can’t speak for Bob, but I wouldn’t overdo this stuff. These are very leader-driven and policy-driven things. I think we do constitute a team, a team of rivals, to use the phrase. Do we love each other? No. Can we work together? Yes.”

He talks of the last two years as “wonderful” and “exhilirating” and “difficult.” He remembers feeling relief, not depression or anger, when the leadership convention results were announced that night in Montreal. He says it’s now a matter of stamina and perseverance. “The basic thing is I’ve got skin in the game. That is, I’ve been on the other side of this microphone, right? There are real things at stake for me here. You either win or you lose, you either succeed or you fail. You’re under the spotlight. You’re no longer a spectator, you’re a participant.”

It’s pointed out that were he presently on the other side of the microphone he’d be compelled to acknowledge that no one stands to gain as much from his own party losing as Michael Ignatieff. “I don’t want our party to lose,” he says. He talks of “tribal loyalties” and knocking on doors at age 17. “This is the institution that was founded by Laurier … you don’t mess around with that. You want it to succeed all the time,” he continues. “If it fails, then we’re into another scenario. But the only scenario I’m looking at is up to October 14. Because you start thinking about anything else and you will start making mistakes. And the party can’t afford me to make mistakes. The party needs me to execute flawlessly. And if we fail to do that, we’re going to deliver this guy a majority. And then a lot of the party will turn around and say, what the hell were you thinking? This is the real deal. I don’t want to give Stephen Harper a majority government. And the party would not forgive anybody among us who said anything that would make that possible.”

A couple sentences more and he’s done. “Thank you for listening to me,” he says. “I gotta go.” A moment later he’s out the door, walking down the road to a nearby strip mall, where he’ll stand out front of a Shoppers Drug Mart and shake hands for another half hour before calling it a day.

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