Michael Ignatieff: King of the road trip

Michael Ignatieff is the rookie leader on the campaign trail, former academic and journalist has struggled with a public image created by his opponents.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff asks a question in the House of Commons Feb. 2, 2011. Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

Michael Ignatieff is the rookie leader on the campaign trail, but he's had plenty of dry runs now that have given him a taste of what it's like and the pace it entails.

In the summer of 2010, Ignatieff launched the first of several road trips that not only gave his team a chance to test the logistics and planning key to a well-managed campaign tour, but gave him plenty of opportunities to try out stump-style speeches and get used to shaking hands and kissing babies all over Canada.

The wheels on his "Liberal Express" bus went around and around for nearly the whole summer, and he's barely stopped taking road trips since.

Ignatieff has been intent on meeting as many Canadians as he can. The idea is that if voters can get to see him up close and personal, just get to know him a little bit, then they'll see he's not the man the Conservative attack ads make him out to be.

A series of online and television ads by the Conservatives portray the Liberal leader as arrogant and unpatriotic. Ignatieff only came to the Canadian political scene as an MP in 2006, after spending years living in the United States and England.

The former academic and journalist has struggled with his public image and since taking over the Liberal party in 2009, has been working hard to improve it.

Vital Signs

Born: May 12, 1947, in Toronto.

Education: University of Toronto, Oxford, Harvard University (PhD).

Career: Globe and Mail reporter, part-time in mid-1960s. Senior research Fellow at King's College, Cambridge. Taught at Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the London School of Economics, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Toronto. Director of Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Politics: First elected to House of Commons 2006, re-elected 2008 in Toronto riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Ran for Liberal leadership 2006, appointed interim Liberal leader 2008, confirmed as leader in early 2009.

Family: Married to Zsuszanna Zsohar, and has two children, Theo and Sophie, from a previous marriage.

A learned man who came back

The Conservatives like to make an issue of Ignatieff's time spent abroad, for which he makes no apologies, and his time in academia. 

The Liberal leader has taught at the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, Cambridge in Britain, the London School of Economics, l'École des Hautes Études in Paris, and at Harvard, where he was the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights for five years.

For a time, he did some journalism work with the Globe and Mail, the BBC and with CBC, and has written three novels and 14 works of non-fiction at last count, including True Patriot Love, a book that was published in April 2009 and goes on at length to illustrate his deep Canadian establishment roots on his maternal side.

Ignatieff was convinced by Liberals to come back to Canada in 2005 and enter politics. He agreed, and quickly had his sights set on leading the party. 

He became Liberal leader almost by default, however, more than two years after first losing the leadership vote that elected Stéphane Dion in December 2006 in Montreal.

Ignatieff led the pack of leadership candidates, which included his former university roomate Bob Rae, after the first ballot. But Dion overtook Ignatieff on the fourth and final ballot to take the leadership.

As deputy leader, Ignatieff played the loyal though, some said, too-quiet lieutenant who did not always rush to his beleaguered leader's side. He did not have to wait long for his chance at the top job.

The election call for October 2008 caught the Liberals unprepared and highlighted Dion's difficulty in communicating in English as well as the unpopularity of his proposed carbon tax — which Ignatieff had been the first to put forward in 2006 in that initial leadership race.

Following the election, the prospect of a coalition toppling the Conservative minority only months after the election angered many Canadians and brought Dion's judgment once again into question.

When the unpopular Dion was forced to step aside early, in the event of a snap election, Ignatieff's caucus supporters saw their moment and had their man crowned interim leader.

It proved to be an unassailable position that forced other would-be contenders out of any leadership race and was finalized at the Liberal leadership convention in Vancouver in early May 2009, when Ignatieff was acclaimed.

Links to the past

Ignatieff is the son of Russian-born Canadian diplomat George Ignatieff, grandson of Count Pavel Ignatiev, minister of education to Tsar Nicholas II. His paternal great-grandfather was Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev, the Russian minister of the interior under Tsar Alexander III.

A product of his heritage, Ignatieff speaks some Russian, could speak Serbo-Croat as a child, and is fluent in English and French.

A few years ago, in his first run at the Liberal leadership, Ignatieff was touted as the new Pierre Trudeau. But he rejected the notion, saying, "There was one Pierre Trudeau; there's not going to be another."

Still, he was a deep admirer of the former prime minister. In fact, he was a youth delegate at the Liberal convention in Ottawa in 1968 that chose Trudeau as leader and a youth organizer for the party in the election that followed. At the time, Ignatieff was 20, Trudeau 49.

Trudeau's pull alone, however, was not enough to keep Ignatieff in Canada in those seminal years. Off he went to London, Cambridge and the bright academic lights of Harvard to ply his trade.

A return to Canada, and to politics

Ignatieff's trek back to the Canadian political limelight seriously began at the Liberal biennial conference in March 2005 in Ottawa, the party's first policy convention in five years.

Paul Martin was prime minister when Ignatieff was invited to deliver a keynote speech to the convention. As a kind of prodigal son, Ignatieff's goal was to heap praise on Canada itself, especially in the context of Canadian-American relations.

"Being anti-American is a lousy way to be a proud Canadian," Ignatieff told the Liberal conference, a scant two years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and as the war there was turning ugly.

He went on to note that, "Liberals have always said no to anti-Americanism. Leave that to the NDP. Anti-Americanism is an electoral ghetto. Leave them to wither inside it."

The speech was a big hit, inspiring some media reports to suggest that Ignatieff, then teaching at Harvard, might make a great Canadian prime minister some day.

Ignatieff rejected the suggestion, saying he had "the best job in the world at one of the best schools in the world."

Within months, however, he was back in Canada at the University of Toronto and by the end of the year he had announced he would be seeking a seat in Parliament. He won that seat in Toronto's Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding in 2006 and has held it since.

He's a rookie leader on the campaign trail but Liberals say he's come a long way and he's ready to take on Stephen Harper.