After Stephane Dion left as leader of the Liberal Party, the party would turn to a new man in the hopes they could take them from their lowest point and back to the leadership of the country. Unfortunately, this new leader named Michael Ignatieff would see the party through its worst election in its history, but his story is much more than that.
Today, I am looking at Ignatieff and his life and career.
Ignatieff was born into two very distinguished families when he entered the world on May 12, 1947, in Toronto. On his father’s side, his grandfather was Count Paul Ignatieff, the last Minister of Education for Imperial Russia. His grandmother was Princess Natalia Mestchersky. On his mother’s side, his grandfather William Lawson Grant and his great-grandfather George Parkin were both principals of Upper Canada College. Another great-grandfather was a principle of Queen’s University, while philosopher George Parkin Grant was his uncle. His great-aunt Alice Massey was also the wife of the first Canadian-born Governor General, Vincent Massey. On top of all of that, he was also the descendant of William Lawson, the first President of the Bank of Nova Scotia.
His grandfather was able to escape Russia during the revolution thanks to mercy from the guards. Ignatieff’s father was four years old when he was forced to leave with the family. A decade later, the family had settled in Quebec.
While Ignatieff was born in Toronto, his youth was spent all over the world because his father, George Ignatieff, was a diplomat and also a Rhodes Scholar. Ignatieff would grow up in New York, Washington D.C., Belgrade and London. At one point, his father was the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
Ignatieff would come back to Canada to complete his secondary schooling at Upper Canada College. While there, he would be elected the school prefect, and was captain of the varsity soccer team.
One classmate would describe him as a centurion.
While in college, he would become roommates with Bob Rae, who would rise in the Liberal Party at the same time as Ignatieff, four decades later.
He also volunteered for the Liberal Party, canvassing in York South in the 1965 federal election. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson was a family friend.
In 1966, Ignatieff would write about the centennial youth travelers, of which he was a part of. He would state in the Globe and Mail quote:
“I expect that everyone here would speak with a real English accent, and I didn’t think Toronto would be as friendly as it is. After visiting Vancouver, I realize we have the most beautiful country in the whole world.”
In 1968, he again worked for the Liberal Party, serving as a national youth organizer and party delegate for Pierre Trudeau. When Trudeau was elected as leader of the party, Ignatieff was standing on the convention floor watching it happen.
He would say decades later quote:
“I had this incredible experience on his plane, and then being at Harrington Lake the night after his victory. It was unforgettable. I was clearly one of those hard-eyed, ambitious teenagers who saw himself in politics very early.”
A story in the Vancouver Sun would report on Ignatieff and his work with Trudeau stating quote:
Ignatieff would also create Action Trudeau, which involved recruiting teenage girls and boys to keep alive the swinging image of Trudeau, who would wear specific uniforms and act as ushers at constituency campaign meetings.
Around this time, he was being courted by the Liberal Party to run but he chose instead to go abroad.
He would say quote:
“I didn’t know anything. I needed to get some weight.”
At the time, he had wanted to break away from the legacy of his family, which he called a force field that he had to break through. He would say quote:
“Unfortunately, it took longer than I expected.”
He then went on to attend the University of Toronto. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in history in 1969, he would go on to obtain a PhD in history from Harvard in 1976. At Harvard, he would write a doctoral thesis on the limits on punishment in the penal system, which would lead to his first book, A Just Measure of Pain.”
Ignatieff would then attend the University of British Columbia, and then King’s College at Cambridge on a research fellowship.
In 1977, he would marry Susan Barrowclough, and together they would have a son Theo in 1984 and a daughter Sophie in 1987.
In 1984, he would leave Cambridge and work as a writer and broadcaster in London. Ignatieff would remain in England for the next 16 years, becoming one of the leading public intellectuals in the English-speaking world, including hosting Thinking Aloud and The Late Show on BBC. He would also write for several newspapers and magazines including the London Observer, the New Yorker, The Guardian and The New York Times.
While in England, he would unfortunately lose several friends when he expressed his support for the Thatcher government’s dealing with the coal miners’ strike. It was his belief the workers were being misled by union leaders.
In England, Ignatieff and Susan would fix up a house. He would say later quote:
“I’m yet another one of those ghastly London males of around 40, who walk around believing they invented fatherhood, children, happy marriages, domesticity.”
He would also write several books. In 1987 he wrote The Russian Album, which traced four generations of his family’s history and won the Governor General’s literary award. This book was his attempt to look into the competitive and complex relationship he had with his father. He would also explore the pull of his Russian heritage. He would say in an interview quote:
“Some of it is Freudian. I chose Daddy’s side as opposed to Mummy’s side. Everybody chooses the past that they identify with. I chose strangeness, I chose the unfamiliar.”
In 1993, he wrote Scar Tissue, a story of a woman suffering from dementia from the point of view of her son. He wrote this fiction book, which mirrored his own life as his mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and his brother Andrew was caring for her.
Many in the family were unhappy with the book, feeling it breached the privacy of the family. While it was fiction, there were also some unhappy with the fact that Andrew seemed to have been written out of the family history for the book. Andrew would say during his brother’s rise in the Liberal Party quote:
He would also write Blood and Belonging: Journeys into The New Nationalism, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond and Isaiah Berlin: A Life.
His profile in England was rising high enough that he would portray himself in the 1991 British comedy Antonia and Jane.
In 1993, his documentary series based on the book, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, aired on BBC and won a Gemini Award in Canada.
In 1997, Ignatieff and Susan would file for divorce. Two years later in 1999, he would marry Zsuzsanna Zshohar. Ignatieff’s brother Andrew would say that she helped make him more human and would add quote:
“I don’t think Michael, until recently, understood his own capacity to generate anger, passion and devotion and fury in people.”
Ignatieff would leave England in 2000 and take a position as the director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard.
In 2003, Ignatieff wrote an article for The New York Times, endorsing the US-led invasion of Iraq, stating it was a legitimate method to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. At the time, Ignatieff believed that the weapons were being developed in Iraq.
He would write quote:
“The question wasn’t, did he have a nuclear program, did he have a biological program, but did he have the capacity and intention to acquire one. I still feel that he constituted a danger.”
In 2005, after 36 years away from the country of his birth, Ignatieff returned to Canada to serve as a visiting professor in human rights policy at the University of Toronto. Upon his return to Canada, he had written 16 books translated into 12 languages, had eight doctorates, seven of which were honorary, and had become internationally known.
One year later in January 2006, he was elected to the House of Commons for the first time and within only a few months became the leading candidate to take over the leadership of the party from former prime minister Paul Martin.
Some Ukrainian members of his riding association objected to Ignatieff running in the riding for what was seen as anti-Ukrainian statements in Blood and Belonging. In the book he said quote:
“I have reasons to take Ukraine seriously indeed. But to be honest, I’m having trouble. Ukrainian independence conjures up images of peasants in embroidered shirts, the nasal whine of ethnic instruments, phony Cossacks in cloaks and boots.”
Ignatieff would state that the quote was taken out of context.
With his new high profile in Canadian politics, it did not take long for the attacks to come against Ignatieff. His critics would attack him not only for supporting Iraq War, but for his nearly four decades absence from Canada.
Ignatieff would address his absence from Canada in an interview with Macleans. He stated quote:
“Sometimes you want to increase your influence over your audience by appropriating their voice, but it was a mistake. Every single one of my students from 85 countries who took my courses at Harvard knew one thing about me. I was that funny Canadian.”
Some critics would bring up something he said in an interview in the early 1990s, when he stated the only thing, he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park.
Others who knew him through the 1990s stated he always identified as Canadian. Samantha Power, a human rights activist and his friend would state quote:
“Literally every assertation of political judgement was preceded by I’m Canadian but or I’m Canadian and. This was long before he was talking about going back to Canada. It was this bizarre tick he had. I’m Michael Ignatieff. I’m Canadian.”
Dallaire would state of the matter quote:
“He was out of the country, but he kept abreast with the country. I know a lot of people who live in this country but don’t have a clue what goes on beyond their town, their region.”
As his profile was rising in the Liberal Party, Ignatieff would suffer a setback in August 2006 when he said he was not losing sleep over civilian deaths caused by Israel’s attacks in Lebanon. He would recant the statement the next week, but it would lead Susan Kadis, his campaign co-chair, to withdraw her support for him.
Ignatieff would launch what was called Iggynation, a series of bar events to bolster youth support for him. At one event, Romeo Dallaire, the former UN Troop Commander in Rwanda. He would say quote:
“I’m not here as a friend or buddy but because he is the only person who can articulate a vision of Canada, who can move the yardstick of humanity, who can move the country well beyond the borders in which we find ourselves.”
He would add later quote:
“This guy can operate at 150 miles an hour when the rest of us are operating at 90. While most politicians try to just survive the future, this guy is moulding the future and that is leadership.”
At that same event, Ignatieff would tell the crowd quote:
“Everybody in this room is going to have one heck of a life. I can guarantee it. You’re bright, you’re smart, you’re the best this country has produced. But you’ve got to make sure that everybody in the country feels the same hope and optimism.”
In the Dec. 3, 2006, Liberal leadership convention, Ignatieff was leading on the first ballot with 29.33 per cent of the votes, which grew to 31.6 per cent in the second ballot. Then, as his opponents who withdrew put their support behind Stephane Dion, Ignatieff saw his support fall to 34.5 per cent as he fell to second place behind Dion on the third ballot. On the fourth ballot, Ignatieff lost to Dion, having 45.3 per cent of the vote compared to 54.7 per cent for Dion.
Dion then appointed Ignatieff as the deputy leader of the party and Ignatieff began work to distance himself from his past views, including writing an August 2007 article for the New York Times where he withdrew his support for the Iraq War.
In October 2008, with the Liberals losing the federal election under Dion, who soon stepped down, Ignatieff was made the interim leader of the party. This was seen as a formality as many in the party wanted him to take over as leader. There were several reasons for this. For one, he was not associated with the civil war between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin that fractured the party in the early 2000s. He had no part in the Sponsorship Scandal that brought down the Liberals from leadership in 2006 and he had no role in past battles with separatists in Quebec.
As the Leader of the Opposition, Ignatieff saw similarities between himself and Lester B. Pearson, as both had a long history outside of the House of Commons before they came in to lead the party. Ignatieff would state he wanted to learn as he goes like Pearson did, while living in Rockcliffe, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition. He would add quote:
“A lot of Mike Pearson’s work rebuilding the party was done in this house.”
He would add to this in a later interview with James McNulty, stating quote:
On May 2, 2009, Ignatieff ran unopposed for the leadership of the party after Bob Rae withdrew from contention. Ignatieff was acclaimed with 97 per cent of the votes, while three per cent of the ballots were spoiled.
He would say upon his election quote:
“I want to speak directly to Stephen Harper. For three years you have played province against province, group against group, region against region and individual against individual. When your power was threatened last November, you unleashed a national unity crisis and you saved yourself only by sending Parliament home.”
Immediately after his election, the Liberals led the Conservatives in the polls 36 to 33 per cent but Prime Minister Stephen Harper ranked higher than Ignatieff by a wide margin, although Ignatieff was well ahead of NDP leader Jack Layton. Pollster John Wright would state why, saying quote:
“Ignatieff is still unknown or is still an enigma. When you compare him with Mr. Harper, Harper’s much better defined and much more positive.”
Justin Trudeau stated he saw the election of Ignatieff as an end to a long era of infighting in the party. He would say quote:
“For me, it will signal an end to much of the infighting that has characterized the Liberal Party for so long. It will be a moment when we can start looking not inward, but outward at where we need to take the country.”
The Conservatives quickly launched attack ads against Ignatieff, stating that he was just visiting the country and he didn’t come back to Canada for Canadians.
Ignatieff would respond to this by stating quote:
“Am I an imperialist? Never, never. I’m a Canadian. I could have spent my life in the United States. I didn’t. I came back here because this is my home.”
On March 25, 2011, the Liberals, who trailed the Conservatives by 10 points in polls, joined with opposition parties to defeat the Stephen Harper government and force an election.
Harper would say of the situation, quote:
“Unfortunately, Mr. Ignatieff and his coalition partners in the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois made abundantly clear that they had already decided they wanted to force an election instead, Canada’s fourth election in seven years, an election Canadians had told them clearly that they do not want.”
The Liberals would campaign on raising the corporate tax rate claiming it needed to be competitive, a learning passport for high school students seeking post-secondary education, and net neutrality. They would also pledge $500 million towards creating childcare spaces.
Jack Layton would attack Ignatieff during the election over his poor attendance record in the House of Commons. He would state quote:
“You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion.”
Harper would challenge Ignatieff to a one-on-one debate on March 30, which was supported by Ignatieff but opposed by the other parties. Ignatieff would state, quote:
The debate was subsequently cancelled.
On April 1, Rick Mercer suggested a one-on-one debate between Harper and Ignatieff, stating he would donate $50,000 to the charities of their choosing if they would participate. Ignatieff agreed by Harper did not respond to the challenge.
In the April 12 debate, Ignatieff would attack Harper on several fronts including democracy, secrecy and control of Parliament, while Harper would argue that his opponents, through bringing down the government, were political opportunists.
In the May 2, 2011, election, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives would increase their seat count by 23, finishing with 166, earning a majority government. This would be the first majority government for a Conservative Party since the 1988 to 1993 majority government of Brian Mulroney.
The Liberals would suffer a total collapse, losing 43 seats to finish with 34, the lowest total the party has ever had in its history going back to 1867 and the first time the party finished third in election results as the NDP surged ahead in the Orange Wave to become the Official Opposition. Ignatieff would state that the two years of television ads launched by the Conservative against him had an impact on the Liberals’ electoral losses. He would say quote:
“When Canadians met me, they thought, hey he’s not so bad but I didn’t meet enough Canadians.”
Ignatieff would say following the loss quote:
“I will serve as long as the party wants me to serve and not a day longer. I’m willing to do that work of renewal, reform and growth.”
Ignatieff, who lost his own seat, would resign as leader the day after the election.
He would say in a statement quote:
“The only thing Canadians like less than a loser is a sore loser. I go out of politics with my head held high.”
Ignatieff would be replaced by his old friend, Bob Rae, who came on to serve as the interim leader of the party for the next two years.
At the next leadership election in 2013, the Liberals would vote in the son of Pierre Trudeau, Justin, as the new leader, who would help the party rebound and return to power in 2015.
Ignatieff would go back to teaching, taking a job at the University of Toronto.
Ignatieff would state of his new job, quote:
“The life that I like the best is teaching. It’s the end of my life as a politician.”
Ignatieff would move on to Harvard in 2013. That same year he published a book about his political career called Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.
In 2016, Ignatieff became the fifth president and rector of the Central European University in Budapest. He would serve in that role until July 31, 2021.
Ignatieff would then take a position at the University of Toronto’s Massey College.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Windsor Star, Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Red Deer Advocate, CBC, Global News, Vancouver Province, Globe and Mail,