Canada’s federal election Monday produced an unusual return. (Allow me to disclaim at the outset that my knowledge and experience of Canada and the politics of her people are very limited.) Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party increased its number of seats in the 308-member House of Commons from 143 to 167, so it can now form a majority government. The separatist Bloc Quebecois was reduced from 47 seats to only 4, its leader Giles Duceppe among those unseated, and the left New Democrat Party nearly tripled its seats from 37 to 102. The Green Party won its first seat ever.
More noteworthy than all the above put together, the center-left Liberal Party of Canada finished third for the first time in a history going back to 1867. This is the party of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretian, and Paul Martin, which governed Canada for 69 years of the 20th Century and the first five years of the 21 Century. Among those losing seats as the Liberal share fell from 77 to 34 was party leader Michael Ignatieff.
Ignatieff’s political failure is interesting enough all by itself, but coming when it did, a week after the pseudo-controversy involving U.S. President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, some comparisons between the two politicians seem worth mulling over. Media outlets thought it would be good business to focus their cameras and microphones on sundry Republican buffoons—a celebrity seeking a presidential campaign spotlight, a former governor who quit to become a celebrity—and let them spout nonsense. Supporters of the President in turn figured it would be good politics to take this gift as an opportunity to label the opposition as racists, because no white politician would ever face mockery for attending a Swiss boarding school and looking French, and every black in American politics—Deval Patrick, Douglas Wilder, Maxine Waters, Charlie Rangel, you name it—would face the same opportunistic insinuations of foreignness if President. Another great week of American politics.
Consider, though, Michael Ignatieff. In some respects, Mr. Ignatieff’s career in academics and media is a more perfect version of Barack Obama’s as a public policy intellectual, more distinguished in his accomplishments, more to show for his years. If Ignatieff is a new name for you, a lengthy Globe and Mail profile “Being Michael Ignatieff” can fill you in. In brief, Mr. Ignatieff went to Harvard for graduate studies, returned to Canada from 1976 to 1978, then spent nearly all his adult life in England and the United States until in 2005, Liberal Party leaders recruited him to become a Canadian politician.
As might be imagined, there were many who questioned whether the lack of first-hand adult experience with his homeland might be too severe a handicap for someone aspiring to be its Prime Minister. An interview he gave the Guardian (link) goes into this. How much to lay the Liberal Party’s historically bad election on this one factor, I don’t know. That the party turned to Mr. Ignatieff probably means that it didn’t have anyone better. Also, Canada has a small population, so perhaps turning to Mr. Ignatieff shouldn’t seem any odder than a U.S. state electing as governor a Canadian or an Austrian. (Well, electing the Austrian was odd.)
I feel some sympathy for Mr. Ignatieff. I am a Nevadan who last lived in Nevada twenty years ago when I was twenty-five. No other place is attached to me like Nevada. The state has gone on just fine without me, though. When I visit—and I am now only a visitor when there—I connect with what I knew that remains and feel a bit passed up by the other half that has come to be since. I wouldn’t even be qualified to vote responsibly in a Nevada election, let alone hold office. Still, if I were three or four orders more impressive, and a group of leading citizens came to draft me to be a future governor, such flattery would likely convince me that, like Michael Ignatieff, I am the one my homeland needs.