Ignatieff in summer

In the latest print edition of Maclean’s there are something like 1,300 words, under this byline, about Michael Ignatieff’s summer. Here, for your amusement, curiosity or comparison, is the indulgently long version, including a never-before-seen alternate ending.

It could be read as the latest in a series that includes previous sketches in September 2008, February 2009, June 2009 and October 2009. It could also be read as a reference to my favourite rap song of 2008.

Anyway. Make of it what you will.

The 17-year-old girl from Sarnia 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 she held in front of her and she addressed him politely as “Mr. Ignatieff.” He might’ve been perfunctory in his response. But 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 and Windsor, he will shrug away any suggestion his words that day were applicable to his present 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, defined by expectation, 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.

In this case, with the interview soon thereafter done and the requisite music video request made (K’Naan’s Wavin’ Flag), Ignatieff retreats to greet some of the couple dozen passersby who’ve stopped to gawk at the scene on Toronto’s Queen Street. A woman in yellow, a sash proclaiming her the calypso queen of Caribana, Toronto’s massive festival of Caribbean culture, coaxes 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, his wife clapping him on, a conga line is formed 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. The local candidate will stay close to his hip, careful to keep in the camera frame. Beside him, at all times, will stand his executive assistant, a former navigator in the air force who carries a red canvas bag in which can be placed whatever letters and notes are thrust at the Liberal leader. He will only deviate from this slow, shuffling march if a firefighter or member of law enforcement is spotted nearby, in which case, by order of some protocol of basic politics, he will be required to walk over quickly and directly to shake their hands.

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.” Near the front sit Ignatieff and his wife, the relentlessly chipper Zsuzsanna Zohar. Around them, a half dozen staff—personal aides, tour directors, a press secretary or two and a blogger and a photographer tasked with making sure the party website features fresh dispatches from the road. Behind them sit whichever MPs and candidates are tagging along for the day. Behind them, a half dozen young Liberals in red shirts, all smiles and enthusiasm, perhaps not much unlike the 17-year-old Michael Ignatieff who campaigned for Lester B. Pearson in 1965. At the very back, next to the table reserved for visiting reporters, is a fridge, a microwave, a water cooler and a coffee maker. Above, in the cabins normally reserved for luggage, is stashed an impressive supply of junk food.

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, 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, he stands in the parking lot of a suburban mall and rallies local Liberals. He mingles for awhile at Muslimfest in Mississauga and briefly interrupts dinner at the Italian club in Niagara. In Toronto, he dons a red robe and shake hands at a Chinese banquet. In London, he peruses the downtown market and talks garlic imports with two men from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. Overlooking a mud pit in Essex County, 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. There’s something very traditional about this. The pancake breakfast in Cupids, Newfoundland on a Friday morning, we’ve been doing [events like] this since Laurier, since Macdonald,” he says. “I’m quite traditional in my view of what politics is about. 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 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 what he likes. “The part of politics I took to like a duck to water was actually door-to-door canvassing,” he says. “You’d be missing the point if this was some new me. Nothing’s being invented here.  If it was a constant exercise in elaborate pretence, 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 that he emits carbon and takes in oxygen like all other human beings. “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 awhile, he will be called to the microphone to speak. Each time he carries a small card on which are written the names of the individuals—local dignitaries in attendance, event organizers—he must thank. Though the gist of each speech is the same, he otherwise speaks without a script. He can periodically stray, and sometimes rambles, but he is often fiery. Holding the microphone in one hand, poking and prodding the air with the other, he will sometimes summon a tone that is very nearly a growl.

He will be sure to mention his wife—when he forgets, in Niagara, he returns to the microphone specifically to thank her. He may joke about the pronunciation of his surname. He will recall a Scottish folk song his mother used to sing (“O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road”) to explain that he intends to conduct himself with honour. He will define the Liberal party as a “big red tent” in the centre of Canadian political life. He will call on the faithful to lend him their energy and effort. “This is not a spectator sport,” he will sometimes say.

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. He, he will tell a crowd in Windsor, believes in democracy, not just power. Harper, he will note, wants to cut corporate taxes and spend billions on fighter jets and prisons, while the Liberals want 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. A year ago, the Prime Minister stated his belief that “no taxes are good taxes.” Before a crowd in Oakville, Ignatieff will allow himself to declare that, while he “never” wants to raise taxes, “we pay them to express fundamental social solidarity.” “That,” he says, “is the contract that holds us together.”

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.”


The third, and last, stop of his 15th day on the road was the Caribana parade in Toronto, the scene a blur of flesh and sequins and feathers. At the end of the parade route, waves of identically dressed dancers are beckoned forward by an emcee who shouts directions over the thumping bass of soca. The music swallows up all other sound as Ignatieff smiles and bounces slightly in place. He watches for awhile from underneath a tent, then moves in. Allowed to the other side of the metal barrier, he walks back up the route, shaking hands, exchanging smiles and waves and fist bumps. The crowd is naturally warm. A man in a silver dragon costume gives him a thumbs up. A dancer blows him a kiss. For the second time in three days, he is convinced to dance. He seems delighted.

He leaves the crowd to the parade and returns to the tent for more handshakes, more photos. Eventually he is compelled to take his leave. He and his wife stroll back through the exhibition grounds, arm in arm against a wave of partygoers arriving for that night’s festivities. Rising up in the distance, the massive stone and concrete Princes’ Gates, frame their figures. Two aides, lingering a few paces behind the couple, pull out cellphone cameras to record this picture of contentment.

It is nearing evening in Toronto and there is a car waiting to take them to the airport. He is due at a Tim Hortons in Grand Falls, New Brunswick the next morning at 9:30am.