Meet Michael Ignatieff

TORONTO — When it comes to getting noticed in the United States, Canada’s main political rivals are somewhat of a mismatch.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, recently needed the help of two former presidential press secretaries — Ari Fleischer, who spoke for George W. Bush, and Mike McCurry, who did the same for Bill Clinton.

They booked Harper a round of interviews with CNN, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and gave him talking points. Harper explained his government’s recession-busting strategy and flaunted the health of Canada’s banks.

Much of the coverage back home, however, focused on the more than $24,000 each consultant received for the work. Media reports questioned why the many well-paid diplomats at the Canadian embassy in Washington weren’t chosen to do the job.

Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff, Harper’s main political opponent, doesn’t need the hired help. His circle of close friends includes Lawrence Summers, head of the White House’s National Economic Council, and Samantha Power, President Barack Obama's friend and former adviser on foreign affairs.

In February, Ignatieff was the subject of a fawning Sunday profile in the New York Times. Two weeks ago, a high-level conference in Washington invited him — rather than a Canadian minister — to explain Canada’s policy on the withdrawal of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Another key speaker was Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After the conference, Ignatieff dined with Holbrooke and Gen. David Patreaus, head of U.S. Central Command. Later, he met with Summers to complain about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s claim that the Canada-U.S. border poses a security risk.

It’s the kind of access money can’t buy.

Ignatieff’s career is his calling card. He spent 25 years in London as a journalist, novelist, documentary filmmaker and television presenter. A scholar of history and politics, he taught at several universities, including Cambridge, Oxford and the London School of Economics.

He then moved to the U.S. and for five years served as director of Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, which organized the Washington conference where Ignatieff and Holbrooke spoke. He’s written 16 non-fiction books, most of them acclaimed and widely translated.

He returned to Canada in 2005 and, at the age of 61, became leader of the Liberal Party last December. He quickly revived the party’s fortunes. The latest polls indicate Ignatieff has a good chance of beating Harper, who leads a precarious minority government, if elections were held soon.

But three decades outside Canada have dogged Ignatieff. He’s been called a “sometimes Canadian,” a stranger to the country he wants to lead. One national magazine columnist wondered whether Americans or the French would ever elect a president who spent 30 years living abroad. The columnist then pointed to an article on the 9/11 attacks Ignatieff wrote while living in Boston, where he referred to Americans as “us” and American freedoms as “our freedoms.”

Ignatieff’s support of Bush’s invasion of Iraq — which he later recanted with a long mea culpa in the New York Times — increased suspicions of his Canadian sensibilities.

In a recent one-hour interview with the Toronto Star, conducted by this correspondent, Ignatieff forcefully rejected the “outsider” label. America, he insisted, never felt like home.

“I’m always struck by the differences, not by the similarities,” he said. “When I was in the United States, you’d be in a room watching television and you’d hear some Republican … talking about abortion, for example, and in some deep sense you wouldn’t understand what they were talking about. Why this debate?

“‘Right to bear arms’ — ferocious debates about the right to bear arms; ferocious debate about creationism; ferocious debates about issues which are settled questions in Canada; ferocious debates about public health care. These are not minor issues.”

“The thing that Canadians have trouble seeing is that what makes us distinctive is … our political culture. It’s just deeply, deeply different from most of the United States and it’s not growing any less different,” he added.

In his new book, "True Patriot Love," he rejects the thesis of his late uncle, conservative philosopher George Grant, who famously argued in 1965 that Canada had become a de facto colony of the U.S.

Yet he warned in the interview that strong economic ties with the U.S. create a north-south pull that threatens to fragment Canada. He argued that the ties need to be offset by greater domestic trade and more east-west infrastructure.

Despite the challenge, he called on Canadians to “stop being neurotic” about their relationship with the U.S. It is time, he said, “to get the monkeys off our back.”

“We should feel enormous pride that we’ve maintained a sovereign, independent, politically distinctive culture north of the most powerful (democratic) model in the world,” he said.

Canada’s distinctive culture, he argued, is buttressed by economic clout: It is America’s number one source of oil. And Canada should learn to flex that muscle.

“My line about Canada and the United States is that we need to feel our strengths. The cliche that we’re captive of is that we’re the weak, dependent northern neighbor. I just think, ‘nah, not true.’ We should feel our strength,” he said.

Besides, the American empire is in decline: “We are living the end of that American noon hour,” he argues in his new book. It’s time for Canada to forge new alliances with European states and developing democracies, he says, and to play a role in shaping the new world order.

Some might suspect Ignatieff’s biting talk about the U.S. is a further bid to squelch persistent unease about his commitment to Canada. One thing is certain: Stephen Harper’s high-priced American consultants didn’t advise him to say this kind of stuff.

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