Ignatieff and the Canadian establishment(s)

The Toronto-centric upper crust losing its former sway

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This week’s issue of the New Yorker features a profile of Michael Ignatieff by Adam Gopnik, who writes from the perspective of a fellow Canadian who has known Ignatieff for many years. Gopnik is always well worth reading, and here brings particular feeling to the question of what might lure a successful Canadian expat home.

One passage, though, strikes me as out of date, and in a way that matters. Gopnik buys into what I think is a stale notion of the Canadian establishment. “Though ever more open and meritocratic…” he says, “the elite tends to rise through the same small number of excellent and cheap universities.”

He cites the fact that Ignatieff and Bob Rae were University of Toronto roommates before they were political rivals as an example of the way upwardly mobile Canadians “tend to get tangled up in old apartments rented, lovers shared, divorces remembered.”

I guess that’s how it once was. But when I cast my mind across today’s Canadian upper crust, it’s hard to come up with evidence that the old Toronto-centric establishment (thinking only about English Canada) still holds anything approaching its former sway. A few names spring to mind:

The country’s top judge, Beverley McLachlin, was born in Pincher Creek, Alta, educated in Edmonton and made her name as a jurist in Vancouver. The most admired Canadian corporate boss, RiM’s Mike Lazaridis, is an immigrant kid who dropped out of University of Waterloo before earning his degree. The new mandarin of mandarins, Privy Council Clerk Wayne Wouters, is a Saskatchewan guy—born there, educated there (apart from taking an MA at Queen’s), and established his reputation as a smart bureaucrat there. Stephen Harper might have fallen into something like the old pattern if he hadn’t, way back when, dropped out of U of T after a couple of months, and then migrated to Calgary where he sank deep educational, personal and political roots.

Of course there are still connections to be forged at U of T, Queen’s and McGill, still rich Torontonians who like hanging out with other rich Torontonians, still social sets that might vaguely resemble the one Ignatieff and Rae grew up inside. But the old unified establishment that Peter C. Newman once chronicled, and that Gopnik references, no longer runs the show. Too many powerful Canadians just don’t share that background.

Still, Gopnik might be onto something when he suggests that the persistence of a small, compact establishment explains how Ignatieff rose the way he did—why “a brilliant man from a well-known family who gives a good lecture and gets the notice of a few big people can become a party leader more of less overnight.” It’s fair to say that Ignatieff’s return to Canada was fueled largely by the enthusiasm he generated among Toronto Liberals with ties to the party’s and country’s old establishment.

Since then, however, he’s had to broaden his appeal, hit the road, work the country. I assume he grasps that Canadian ambition and influence flows through more varied channels these days. If he hasn’t figured that out, then he and his Liberals are in big trouble.