Posted by: admin on Apr 24, 2009
(Cult)ure is at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, at the St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts and Humanities, in the Byward Market, from April 22nd to May 2nd.
On Friday night, Michael Ignatieff discussed his new book, "True Patriot Love," with Adrian Harewood of CBC Radio. It was a great opportunity to learn more about a man who may one day become Prime Minister of our country.
Ignatieff was at pains to point out, though, that he had not written a political manifesto, nor a response to criticisms from political opponents - he had simply written a book, and had in fact started to think about it and write it while on a cross-country trip with his wife in 2000, long before he became involved in politics. Nevertheless, it was difficult to separate the discussion of his literary product with his current "day job," as Harewood put it, as the Leader of Canada's Official Opposition.
"True Patriot Love" is the story of Ignatieff's mother's family, the Grants, a clan of dour, driven, highly principled people, of Scots Presbyterian heritage, originating in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. A couple of them in particular, Ignatieff's great-grandfather, George Monro Grant, and his uncle, George Parkin Grant, were heavily involved in both the physical and intellectual development of Canada: Monro Grant as a companion of Sir Sandford Fleming on his trek from Halifax to Victoria to survey the route for the Canada Pacific Railway, and then as a prominent figure in religious, academic, and policital circles; and Parkin Grant as a conservative scholar and writer, most famous for his book "Lament for a Nation."
The discussion was an opportunity for Ignatieff to expand upon both his pride as a descendant of these great Canadian thinkers, activists, and writers; and his own deep, personal connection to his country.
However, there was one moment early on that caught strongly at my attention, and it remained a nagging concern throughout the rest of the evening: and that was when Ignatieff, describing his great-grandfather, on his trek across the country, standing in the waist-high grass of the endless Manitoba prairie, envisions a great, transcontinental nation arising out of what Ignatieff describes as "nothing. Absolutely nothing."
But of course there was not "absolutely nothing" there, in that great expanse of wilderness. There were in fact tens of thousands of First Nations living on the prairie, in the foothills of the Rockies, and all the way to the Pacific coast that Fleming and Grant were so anxious to reach; not to mention the Inuit in the vast arctic lands to the north, and the First Nations in the already settled east. And for many of these people, the construction of that great nation, with its thousands of kilometres of railroads, its towns, farms, mines, churches, its schools, and the ever-meddling government that came along with all these things, would be nothing short of an utter catastrophe; and the descendants of these people can today, at best, feel nothing warmer than a huge, conflicting ambivalence about the fortunes of this country as a whole, and its population.
Ignatieff, as always, spoke very engagingly, with great passion, occasional humour, and fine articulation about the the founders of the Canadian nation, and the fierce energy and patriotism of the millions of immigrants from all over the world who have arrived since then, who have contributed so much to our society. And I am aware that Ignatieff, in his book, expresses his concern for the problems of Canada's First Nations, as his great-grandfather also did - but it was nevertheless extremely disconcerting to be aware of this enormous gap in the evening's discourse, and it seemed like a significant failure for a historian, intellectual, and politician of such repute not to address First Nations during a talk on Canadian history and patriotism.
(It would have been nice to hear a question from the audience on this topic during the period allotted to questions from the floor - but instead we heard Senator Laurier Lapierre, among others, go on a bit too long on issues like the ignorance of Canadian youth about their country's history and geography.)
As for the rest of the evening, Ignatieff spoke warmly and intelligently enough to show that he would probably make a decent Prime Minister - and with the massive organizational machine of the Liberal Party behind him, he may even become a very good one. But I got the sense that, while he may be in love with the ideas and principles that Canada, at its finest, represents - multiculturalism, peacefulness, universal health care, freedom and equality in general - I didn't get the sense that he truly loves Canadians - those average people who drink coffee in hockey arenas at six in the morning, and make dinner for the kids at six in the evening, with a tough day at work in between. He might have to talk to those people to get elected, but it doesn't seem it would come naturally to him.