Intellectual Sleight of Hand

Where is Michael Ignatieff himself in this new version of the family album?

Most Canadians know Michael Ignatieff as an expatriate who returned home trailing clouds of glory as a journalist, novelist, essayist and Harvard professor. They know him as a smart, articulate and high-minded rookie. Best of all, they know he is not Stephen Harper, Stéphane Dion or Bob Rae. Beyond that, they do not know much.

This book, coinciding as it does with the public’s bestirred curiosity about the man who is likely to be our next prime minister, is particularly timely, which no doubt accounts for why the author rushed it to press. And though it suffers the usual weaknesses of haste and opportunism, it actually reveals quite a lot about Ignatieff—more, perhaps, than he intended. For starters, because of his exotic name, his award-winning memoir, The Russian Album and his pedigree as the descendant of tsarist nobility, he is generally pegged as his diplomat father’s son: patrician, confident to the edge of condescension and dedicated to public service. True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada suggests that his mother’s lineage was in fact the greater influence in shaping his character and determining his fate.

Happy and fortunate the family scribe with renowned, well-documented ancestors. And few Canadians have as renowned and well-documented a bunch to work with as Ignatieff has with the Grants. There was his great-grandfather, George Monro Grant, the esteemed principal of Queen’s University from 1877 to 1902. Then came William “Choppy” Grant, the beloved principal of Upper Canada College from 1917 to 1935. Then followed George Parkin Grant, the unkempt philosopher whose book Lament for a Nation became a sacred text of Canadian nationalism upon its publication in 1965. Each gets a section here, part pen sketch, part family lore, part a reflection on his life and times.

“I can see how vain and distorted our family myth making could be,” Ignatieff admits, “but for all that, I cannot disavow it. It is part of me. It is impossible to overstate how present, how alive these three generations were in my childhood.”

Although every family is besotted with itself to some degree, turning its knick-knacks into heirlooms and its stories into legends, the Grants seem especially so. “We both come of good blood, my dear,” William Grant once wrote his wife, Maude, a daughter of Sir George Parkin, yet another UCC principal, best-selling author and wandering evangelist of imperial federation, “and it is something to be proud of.”

Their pride hangs like a heavy mantle upon the shoulders of this slender book—a mantle woven of thick, almost suffocating cords of honour, duty, scholarship, reputation and what Ignatieff calls a “sustained illusion of self-importance.” They were proud of their connections by marriage to the Parkins, the Ignatieffs and the Masseys. They were proud of their friendships with a host of famous figures who make cameo appearances throughout this book. Once, in a delicious anecdote you won’t find here, Stephen Leacock was asked whether George Parkin had any friends below the rank of viscount. “Plenty,” Leacock replied, “back on the farm.”

Normally a pride as deep as theirs is rooted in blue blood or old money. They had neither, except through the various in-laws with the honorary knighthood, the overthrown title and the tractor fortune. No, the Grants’ pride was to be teachers, writers and public intellectuals. That was the family trade (or “vocation,” as Ignatieff prefers it), preceded by what reads like a mandatory apprenticeship at Oxford and a stint in London.

Not only did the three generations share a trade, but they also shared an agenda. Whether Presbyterian or Anglican, Liberal or Conservative, they were fundamentally 19th-century Tories. They worshipped God and empire, distrusted the individualism and materialism of the United States, and promoted a vision of Canada that was essentially white, English speaking, Protestant and British, not quite a colony but not quite a nation either.

“The starting point they all shared,” Ignatieff writes, “was that Canada alone—the stump-filled fields, the small brick-built towns, the lonely expanses of prairie between the station stops—was not enough. These places became grand, became worth caring about, because their stars were hitched to something greater: the emerging global civilization of an empire on which the sun, as the saying went, never set.”

That did not make them narrow-minded bigots. On the contrary, if we choose to believe Ignatieff’s account, they were Upper Canadians of the best possible sort: empathetic, highly cultured and often bilingual. Great-grandfather Grant pities the doomed aboriginals he encounters on his travels across Western Canada, defends French-language schooling in Manitoba and sympathizes with the underdogs in South Africa. Grandfather Grant praises the contribution of French Canadians in building Canada, votes for Laurier and reciprocity with the United States, and supports the League of Nations. Uncle George is at times a pacifist, a socialist and a Diefenbaker populist.1

And yet, whenever the interests of the Motherland were at stake, the Grant men invariably set aside their noble intentions and soft-hearted sentiments to run rail lines across Indian territory, rally round the Boer War, impose conscription against the will of the French Canadians in World War One or abandon a heroic effort to assist the working classes in bombed-out London under the unbearable family pressure to sign up for World War Two.

The first two generations were, as Ignatieff bluntly puts it, “propagandists” for the established order. Their success flowed from giving intellectual polish to imperial steel. By their words, greed, exploitation and racial discrimination were transformed as though by magic into progress, civilization and divine order. As a reward, they were given the task of training the sons of the colonial elite, heaped with honours and respect, and made comfortable in the parlours of the rich and powerful.

Even Uncle George, who scorned his family’s social climbing, could only rebel by accusing his generation of betraying the purest ideals of the ancestors. Without the Tory vision, went his lament, Canada would never be able to withstand the economic, cultural, technological and military clout of the new American empire. He laid the blame directly on the Liberal Party’s Lester Pearson and indirectly on Michael Ignatieff’s parents.

This is all well and good as bite-size popular history, although hardly news to anyone familiar with William Christian’s excellent biography of the philosopher or Charles Taylor’s vivid portrait in Radical Tories. But here’s the rub: Ignatieff is not content with a simple family memoir. He wants to elevate the Grants and himself into exemplars of Canadian patriotism—a bit of a trick given their starting point.

To attempt it, he opens with a flatulent sermon on patriotism so romantic and rhetorical as to let British imperialism and North American free trade, globalization and deux ou trois nations, and even living abroad for 30 years, drive right through its definition. Particularly disappointing from the author of Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, there is no intellectual spadework into the distinction, if any, between patriotism and nationalism, either of the ethnic or the civic sort.

Perhaps he felt he had put that issue to bed in his previous works. “In fact,” he wrote in The Rights Revolution, “‘patriotism’ is simply the name we give to our love of country, while ‘nationalism’ is the epithet we apply to other people’s.” Clever, but if, as he proposes in that book, Canada is a “tri-national community” of English Canadians, Québécois and aboriginals, then what is tri-national patriotism or what indeed is English-Canadian nationalism?

Ignatieff’s literary device in True Patriot Love prevents him from asking whether the patriotism of these puffed-up colonial grandees, albeit gentler and more liberal than the Family Compact of yore, was not plain old ethnic nationalism. Surely the Canada they envisaged was a kind of Little England or at best a Greater Britain, its own “imperial” federation in which a dominant culture—theirs—held sway over the polyglot, multi-hued masses. Self-interest in the guise of God’s good works. That is what Pierre Trudeau had to kill off, no less than Quebec’s equivalent, to put in place a civic nationalism based on individual rights, social justice and an infinite variety of cultures. And that was the passing of which Uncle George so lamented.

Patiently, though not without moments of pleasure and insight, we work our way through three generations of Grants and Parkins with the promise that these important and complex issues will be grappled with and pinned to the ground once the fourth generation shows up in the person of Ignatieff himself. Certainly he has prepared us well to anticipate the form and content of his own search for Canada.

There will be his British indoctrination in 1950s Ontario, on the playing fields of Upper Canada College and among the dreaming spires of Oxford. There will be a coming-of-age account with his emergence as a Trudeau volunteer and anti-war protestor, a 1960s Liberal rather than a Red Tory like Uncle George or a New Democrat like his buddy Bob Rae. He will undoubtedly writhe in agony over his decision to follow in the ancestral footsteps to London and will perhaps confide whether his subsequent move to Boston had anything to do with the centre of world power shifting to Washington. He might even compare his forefathers’ support for Britain’s wars with his own “ready, aye, ready” role as a propagandist for Bush’s imperial adventure in Iraq.

Instead, to our utter dismay, we get a high-speed journey with his wife in a rented Ford from Thunder Bay to Vancouver almost nine years ago. Not an hour in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, where his great-grandfathers were born. Not a day to reflect upon patriotism in Quebec. Not even a trip down memory lane in Toronto. We zoom through nine pages (wide margins, big font), barely stopping to read a plaque or visit West Edmonton Mall, conversing with almost no one, inquisitive about almost nothing, remarkably unobservant, with a copy of an old book by Principal Grant as our only guide.

Moccasins on sale by the highway are evidence of aboriginals nearby. There’s a bear cub, the radio station is fading, see how neat the grass is kept around that church, let’s go by horseback into the foothills for three sentences. They don’t buy a replica of the last spike, we learn, but they do find the best pie in Canada in a roadside café so inadequately described that the secret remains safe with them.

Of course we are happy that Michael Ignatieff had a nice vacation, and God knows how mean the life of a freelance writer can be in Canada. The poor guy was even attacked for taking a bit of time during his Christmas holidays to dash off another couple of thousand words to fulfil his contractual obligation. But what about his obligation to his loyal readers who were sold a Canadian version of The Russian Album and ended up being taken for a ride?

And so it is left to us to make the links, draw the conclusions or at least raise the questions that Ignatieff fails to raise for us. For one thing, his family background seems to have imbued him with a deeply traditional set of values. He is still the UCC prefect with a G.A. Henty enthusiasm for the valour of war, raised in the bosom of a colonial elite, close to power and yet consigned to its courtier class. As Uncle George kept discovering, if you want to have the “plums” of good jobs, inside connections and the family’s approbation, you’d better toe the line. Indeed, the philosopher once observed, his mother had expected him to be prime minister and never forgave him for failing.

Hence perhaps Ignatieff’s ambition, not to mention the pedantic heights from which he appears to be delivering his wisdom. And if you have ever wondered why he quit Canada for three decades or how he presumed to take a run for the prime minister’s office with less government experience than Sarah Palin, there is his mother singing along with Judy Garland that “if you haven’t played the Palace, you might as well be dead.”

But ambition for what purpose? What is the future country that Ignatieff insists we must imagine, “the national vision of our age”? There are a few Christmas-rush pages about strengthening our east–west ties—a broader Trans-Canada Highway, a high-speed rail link from Windsor to Quebec, a national energy strategy—and forming, as he puts it without any irony or shame, “our own coalitions of the willing” in the new world order. Strangely, from a cosmopolitan man of letters, there is nothing about the arts, nothing about communications, nothing about language policy and nothing about multiculturalism. Canadian patriotism, it seems, is a bunch of infrastructure projects, a better government and enough hot air to open the Northwest Passage.

More problematic is his weak grasp of the Canadian reality that replaced his family’s vision while he was out of the country. “Three peoples share a state,” he declares of Canada, not once but twice, and he perversely describes Trudeau’s Charter as “incarnating a distinctive national rights culture.” Is this the revenge of the Grants? By conceding to the Québécois and the aboriginals their own ethnocentricity, does ye olde British race get to define English Canada’s identity after all, with the Sikhs and the Chinese, the Somalis and the Mexicans, the Haitians and the Vietnamese, not to forget the White Russians—Canadian citizens all—only here to contribute a bit of international flavour and some better cuisine? If so, how does this jive with what Ignatieff admits is “this sentiment that makes us want to be one people”?

The evidence of this book is unsettling for those who admire Michael Ignatieff and wish him well. It smacks of quick-hit expediency and intellectual sleight of hand. It suggests that beneath Ignatieff’s Liberal convictions lurk a Tory’s deference to authority, an accommodation of elites, a privileged perch in the Ontario hierarchy, an insider’s interest in the status quo, a casual disregard for individual rights and a jaw-dropping sense of entitlement. This isn’t Pierre Trudeau. It isn’t even Lester Pearson. It’s John Turner.

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  1. For a less flattering view of the Grants, see Alan Mendelson’s Exiles from Nowhere: The Jews and the Canadian Elite (Robin Brass Studio, 2008), reviewed by Ramsay Cook in the March 2009 issue of the LRC.