I. Am. Canadian.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff discusses his new memoir, True Patriot Love
Federal Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has never had any qualms writing about his family. His Booker-nominated novel Scar Tissue (1993) was a fictionalized account of his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s, and scandalized a number of his socially prominent Canadian relatives. His 1987 memoir The Russian Album charted Ignatieff’s paternal ancestors, who fled the Russian revolution to begin anew in Canada.
In his much-anticipated new memoir, True Patriot Love, the historian and former Harvard prof turns to his mother’s family, the Grants, whose exploits literally helped shape Canada. His great-grandfather George Monro Grant set out with engineer Sir Sandford Fleming on a quest to map out a national railway that would stretch from coast to coast. Ignatieff’s grandfather William Lawson Grant, a principal of Upper Canada College, fought in the Battle of the Somme.
In one respect, True Patriot Love operates as a rebuttal to his uncle George Grant’s seminal work, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism (1965), which claimed that Canada had devolved into a mere colony of the United States. True Patriot Love weaves together family lore and Canadian history, and spells out Ignatieff’s own dreams for a multicultural nation. Ignatieff spoke with Donna Bailey Nurse about his new memoir, his definition of "patriotism" and the benefits of reading history.
Q: Some people see True Patriot Love as the first salvo in your campaign to become prime minister. But in fact you decided to publish the story about your great-grandfather and grandfather well before you entered politics. Why did you want to write it in the first place?
A: I wrote the Russian Album, which was about my Russian family, because at the time, I thought of my Russian past as being more exotic — and maybe my father [George Ignatieff] was a more important person in my life in the 1980s. Getting free of them, growing up, coming to grips with my father’s family was important. But I was always aware that my mother had a past, and I think some of what drives writing this book is just appreciating how much my mother meant to me, how much I learned from her, how important her past was to me. She is a kind of secret presence in this book. Some of the stories, some of the inheritance, come from her.
My mother spent the last 10 years of her life struggling with Alzheimer’s, which I kind of blotted out because it was so painful to me. She was pretty far gone for the last year or two. I think she sort of recognized my brother; I think she sort of recognized me. But that was painful.
In a way, the chapter [in the book] about the Second World War is about her. She had an extraordinary experience. She was in London right through the whole war. She went through the Blitz. She met Frank Pickersgill, whom she fell in love with. He died and then she met my father. It was the formative period of her life. One of the things the book does is put her story into a context. It’s really an homage to her people.
Q: I love the development of the Canadian railway as a metaphor in the book, because the railway is a metaphor we often use to imagine ourselves as a vast yet unified country. But you suggest in the book that we are not living up to that dream.
A: I think one of the key lines in the book for me is that these people [his great-grandfather’s generation] believed more in us than we believe in ourselves. The thing that really strikes me about the building of the railway is just, they were nuts! It was so expensive, there was no market, there was nobody out there. And yet they went through it and they did it because they wanted to create this country. We now look at building high-speed rail – not even across the country; between Quebec City and Windsor – and we think, too expensive, too difficult, can’t be done. But wait a minute, wait a minute — that’s not what they thought. I don’t want to overdo this, but what was inspiring to me about going back and reviewing all of this history was just how passionately that generation believed in the country. That’s a lesson for us.
Q: But wasn’t that just the optimism of the times?
A: Yes, there is something about their patriotism which we can’t recapture, because we’re more ironic and we have also seen what patriotism unleashed can do. But I don’t know — I still think they’re pretty inspiring. When I think about what I’d like to do in politics, it has to do with recapturing the spirit they had in the 19th century.
But there’s another part of the book which I want to put some emphasis on: One person’s dream is always achieved at the price of someone else. And there’s no doubt that national dream of the 19th century was not the dream of French Canadians; it was not the dream of aboriginals; it was not the dream of the Métis. That’s the other thing you learn. My grandfather believed that Canada had been made on the battlefield of the First World War. But that was not a sentiment shared by all Canadians.
There is no one history. There’s no moment where we’re beyond argument here. Our country is very conflicted about its history, and it should be. There are some very dark passages out there, and there are some bright ones. So it’s important not to ram one’s dreams down other people’s throats.
Q: Part of what intrigued me with this book is the way you demonstrated how war has shaped the character of our nation.
A: There’s no question that the Boer War, the First World War and the Second World War are key chapters in the book. And in each case, they were defining moments. If Canada came out of the Second World War thinking it was an important country to a degree that we often aren’t honest enough to admit, it’s because we made a huge contribution. A lot of our best and bravest didn’t come home. And Canadians are very troubled by that, and they should be. Nothing has done more to harm patriotism than the idea that patriotism can lead you into war and to military sacrifice. And for very good reasons, Canadians are skeptical about that. We’re going through this in Afghanistan right now. Canadians are incredibly proud and grateful to the soldiers. But we’re all asking, is it worth it? We asked this every time we had to go to fight.
Don’t think I’m keen for Canada to use military force; I’m not. Diplomacy, development, humanitarian aid are preferable to military force. But if someone is living in fear for their lives and we’re asked to protect them, we have to protect them properly.
Q: Why would anybody think otherwise?
A: I think some Canadians don’t like the idea of having a combat-capable military, and I respect that. But if we are going to protect ourselves, let alone anybody else, we have to have the capacity to do that.
Q: Was this partly what led to your initial support of the war in Iraq?
A: This was what Iraq was about for me. I’ve been to Iraq and seen what Saddam did to the Kurds: using poison gas on civilian populations. You thought, this guy has gotta go. But it was a mistake to believe that deploying U.S. military force, without [UN] Security Council approval, would do anything other than alienate the world. I’m glad Iraq is now getting towards stability. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think the invasion achieved these goals at a horrendous price.
Q: Some Canadians see you as too cerebral for politics. Is this part of some weird North American notion that you’re either a man of thought or a man of action, that you can’t be both?
A: That’s an interesting question. I think that in the case of my family, what is interesting is how much they translated thought into action. And vice versa. Here was my great-grandfather, a Presbyterian clergyman who throws everything up — including a wife who is pregnant, right: leaves her; goes out for three months across the west. And then again in the 1890s, when the country’s being torn apart by the Manitoba Schools Crisis, he stops being president for Queen’s University and does a month’s reporting for the Globe and Mail. I really do admire that. And my grandfather, who became principal of Upper Canada College, goes and fights in the First World War.
What I respect about these old, departed shades is that they did put their ideas into action. Above all, as so-called intellectuals, they understood something I’ve always believed in: that you can’t know anything until you’ve touched it. You can’t know anything until you’ve lived it. They lived their country; they lived it. They didn’t just sit in a study and write about it, and that’s been a very strong part of my own life.
Q: Some people have said that you are too decent to survive the rough-and-tumble world of politics. Is that why you brought in a guy like Warren Kinsella to head up your campaign team?
A: [Laughter] I’m glad people think I’m decent. And I hope, joking aside, that we maintain basic decency in politics and that there are some things you just don’t do, and that also applies to Mr. Kinsella. Nobody who works for me should be taking cheap shots, and if they take cheap shots, they won’t be working for me for very long.
Q: Why did you want Kinsella in the first place?
A: Warren is a very close friend of people who work with me and for me. He’s clever. I want some tough people because I’m up against some tough people. I can’t be naïve about that. But there’s a line between being tough and being unfair, and I’m responsible to making sure we don’t cross that line.
Q: In True Patriot Love, you seem to suggest that we ought to be going further in terms of what we imagine Canada to be, especially with regards to cultural accommodation. Is that correct?
A: You don’t want a multiculturalism which is just one bell jar after another of separation. You go door to door, as I do in my riding, and the moments when you worry most about your country is when you are on the 24th floor of social housing, and one door is Ghanaian and the next door is Somali and the next door is a recent Chinese immigrant, and they don’t speak any shared language at all. They don’t know each other. They don’t open their doors to each other. You then think, whoa, wait a minute; there is a problem here. You do want them to be able to communicate with each other. You do want them to speak English or French. You do want them to feel equality under their feet, right? I sometimes think we’re not doing a great job of pulling people together into one shared sense of unity in difference. And I think that’s a preoccupation of mine.
But it’s very important not to lose faith. Between 1896 and 1911, [Canada] took in a much higher percentage of our population in immigration than any time before or since, and at the time, if you talked to the experts, they all would have said, "Hell! It’s going to hell here! All these Slavs, all these Russians, all these Ukrainians coming. For Heaven’s sake! They don’t speak anything! What are we doing?" But now look at them. So let’s just keep the faith.
Q: True Patriot Love describes your deep affection for the country. Is it a response to those who accuse you of not being Canadian enough, of having spent too much time outside of the country?
A: Let’s just back up here. Who says that the proof of patriotism is never going out of the country? Twenty-five per cent of our country was born in another place. Are they less good Canadians because they were born somewhere else? There are a million Canadians that work and live overseas. Are they less good Canadians? No. We think that’s great. I just won’t give any ground on that.
I think we ought to have a discussion about what patriotism is. Patriotism is not blind. The "true" in True Patriot Love is very important to me. I don’t want a false patriotism where you say, my country right or wrong. I don’t want a false patriotism where you say, our history has always been glorious. I want a true patriotism in which you say there are some challenges we have not overcome. But we’re going to stick at it together. Because we love the place and we love each other and we want it to turn out OK.
True Patriot Love is in stores April 21.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a writer based in Toronto.