Ignatieff courts Yukon Liberal votes

Some call him egghead. He’s an historian, a former war correspondent and a former Harvard University professor who returned to Canada in 2005…

Some call him egghead.

He’s an historian, a former war correspondent and a former Harvard University professor who returned to Canada in 2005 to seek federal office with the Liberal Party after living abroad for 30 years.

Now Michael Ignatieff wants to be the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and, by extension, the next prime minister.

And he’s got the endorsement of Yukon MP Larry Bagnell.

Liberalism is about progressive social change, Ignatieff told a roomful of Liberals Friday at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse.

“The provision of world class public amenities for everyday people — that’s liberalism,” he said, gushing over the Canada Games Centre that Bagnell “delivered” to the Yukon community.

Having travelled to war-torn parts of the world suffering from civil conflict, such as Kosovo and Rwanda, Ignatieff spoke about Canadian blessings that must be safeguarded.

The Yukon and Canada are world-renowned models of progressive, peaceful societies involving multiple cultures living close to harmony, and countries with distinct aboriginal cultures, such as Australia and New Zealand, are watching, he said.

“If we can’t do it, no one can.

“I’ve been to places where people have to kill and die for this stuff.

“What you’re doing here is important for the world.

“They want us to succeed. They want the Yukon to succeed.”

Before he spoke, Bagnell rattled off highlights of Ignatieff’s impressive resume to a roomful of Liberals, including Senator Ione Christianson, Yukon Liberal Party leader Arthur Mitchell and former Yukon commissioner Jack Cable.

The Order of Canada, the Governor General’s award for non-fiction, a directorship at Harvard’s Carr Centre for Human Rights, fluency in English, French and Russian — the list of Ignatieff’s experiences and accomplishments is long and distinguished, although not quite as replete as Bagnell made out.

Bagnell bungled parts of Ignatieff’s resume, giving him credit for things his father — George Ignatieff, former Canadian ambassador to Yugoslavia and the United Nations — did.

Nevertheless, Michael Ignatieff, grandson of a minister to the last Russian Czar before the Bolshevik revolution, has been coasting on a stellar career as a writer, journalist and academic since he first sought political office.

And he rode that wave to Whitehorse.

Ignatieff’s 30-minute speech focused on three pillars: regional economic development, environmental stewardship and First Nations government.

It was a talk closely scripted to the needs of the Yukon, obviously crafted with Bagnell’s advice.

“I no longer believe you can do regional economic development from Ottawa. It doesn’t work,” Ignatieff told about 70 of the party faithful whose support he was seeking. (Each paid $10 each to hear him speak.)

It’s up to people in Canada’s regions to propose economic-development schemes, and “it’s our job to get you the money … to cut through the red tape,” he said.

“Ottawa is good at writing cheques.”

On the environmental front, Yukoners understand global warming better than anyone else, said Ignatieff.

He proposed establishing mandatory carbon dioxide emission limits.

And if elected prime minister, pulling the $5 billion Kelowna agreements on aboriginal poverty off the shelf would be one of Ignatieff’s first actions, he said.

When the Conservatives took power they brought an end to negotiations that have been going on for 40 years, with no resolution, he said.

The absence of First Nations self-government and poverty in aboriginal communities are “the shame of our country,” said Ignatieff, who campaigned for Pierre Trudeau in 1968.

“It is the uncomfortable bit of social justice business that we have not got to.”

Eventually, the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs must have as its ultimate goal its own abolition, he said.

For the rest of impoverished Canadians, Ignatieff proposed a tax cut for low-income people who are trying to find work.

Ignatieff took a few swipes at Prime Minister Stephen Harper, particularly during the question-and-answer period when asked about Harper’s highly touted softwood lumber deal.

“He’s slipping and sliding with the best of them, and he’s slipping and sliding on this one,” said Ignatieff.

“If the goal of this deal is to bring stability to the industry, then it’s a bad deal.”

Harper has a “bullying attitude” towards Parliament, “and we can’t afford to be bullied.”

But Ignatieff stood by Canada’s military commitment to Afghanistan under the United Nations.

The 9-11 attacks came from Afghanistan, and Canadians were killed in those attacks, he reminded his audience.

“I don’t want to tell any Canadian this is going to get easier. This offensive will last until the full winter starts, in late October or November.

“Until then it’s going to be tough. Really tough. And it may get tough again in the spring.”

Ignatieff is in a hard race for the Liberal leadership that will be decided at a December convention in Montreal, pitted against Stephane Dion, Scott Brison, Bob Rae, Ken Dryden and Gerard Kennedy (ordered here according to Bagnell’s support).

There are many issues Ignatieff is working through his “engine room,” a place in the middle of his torso he gestured to often with clenched fists, “where fundamental commitments are made.”

Professing too many priorities in the manner of former Prime Minister Paul Martin could be a chink in Ignatieff’s political armour.

His other deficit is his support for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq — a position he still maintains.

“I was a journalist working for the CBC in 1992, and I went to Iraq and spent six weeks in northern Iraq, and what I saw of Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds and the Shia led me to conclude that I would stand with those people come what may,” said Ignatieff.

“They, to a man and woman in 2003, wanted Saddam Hussein overthrown by force. So I decided to stay with those people and I have stood with them ever since.

“If the question is, ‘Have the Americans made terrible mistakes in Iraq,’ no question about it.

“Has the situation in Iraq contributed to global instability? No question about it.”

The fact that he had not lived in Canada for three decades before returning at least in part to seek office doesn’t help his image as an all-Canadian leader either.

“It’s a funny question — am I Canadian enough?,” he mused.

“I’ve never been the citizen of another country.

“I’ve never wanted to be a citizen of another country, and I’m proud that I have lived and worked successfully in other countries.

“Many Yukoners … live and work all over the world.

“I feel there is something very Canadian about going overseas and doing stuff and then coming back.

“I don’t feel it’s un-Canadian.”

Ignatieff’s bottom line, and unofficial campaign slogan, is “bringing hope to all Canadians.”

“I’ve always thought of the Liberal Party of Canada, which I’ve been a member of since I was a kid, as the greatest force for progressive social change in our country.

“I want to lead the greatest force for progressive social change in our country.

“And I want to restore our standing in the world as a leader.

“I don’t think we’re a small unimportant country; I think we’re a really big important country, and we’ve not fulfilled our potential as a world leader.”