BEATING UP THE 'FURRINER' FROM HARVARD
by John Geiger
National Post, Tuesday, April 4, 2006
Michael Ignatieff successfully dispatched the claim that he was a "parachute candidate" forced on Etobicoke-Lakeshore voters by Liberal party elites when he handily won the riding on Jan. 23. But he is finding it harder to shake another charge: that because he was an expatriate for over two decades he is somehow not sufficiently Canadian.
In a country famous for permissive immigration policies and priding itself on its inclusiveness of people of different ethnicities and national origins, and in a party where you don't even have to be a citizen to vote for leadership candidates, Ignatieff is being treated like what rednecks would call a "furriner." He was heckled with chants of "American, American!" during his Liberal nomination meeting on Nov. 30, and the criticism has continued unabated.
No matter that he is the son of a distinguished Canadian diplomat who very nearly became governor-general, and a great-grandson of the Victorian worthy George M. Grant. Or that he was born and raised in Toronto, received his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto's Trinity College, won the Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction and has only ever held Canadian citizenship. That's not Canadian enough for his detractors. To be truly Canadian, you apparently need to have spent years mucking about in the Liberal party trenches in the GTA. In other words, you need to be Joe Volpe.
During the election campaign, Ignatieff made recognition of foreign professional qualifications one of his priorities: "Canada loses when foreign-trained professionals are shut out of Canada's job market because of a lack of recognition of foreign credentials," he said. Was he just being self-serving?
Ignatieff did his postgraduate studies at Oxford and Harvard. He covered the Balkan wars for The New Yorker, hosted a BBC talk show, wrote a novel that was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as well as 15 other books, held teaching posts at, among other universities, Cambridge and the University of London. Most recently, he served as director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. Ignatieff is, in summary, a leading contributor to the liberal thought of our day. He has been compared to another thinker, Pierre Trudeau -- but Trudeau's accomplishments before he entered politics pale alongside Ignatieff's.
Yet it is those credentials that are not being recognized.
Admittedly, this is not exactly the same problem being faced by the foreigners on whose behalf Ignatieff has advocated: He is not the holder of a medical degree from Chittagong University whose practice largely involved performing appendectomies with a rusty sardine can. And Ignatieff is not being forced to drive a cab for a living. But the failure to accept his credentials could still serve to derail his ambitions to be Liberal leader, and, as Ignatieff said of the recognition of foreign credentials, "As a country, we cannot afford to let skills go to waste."
Indeed, it is a disgrace that Ignatieff is being forced to take seriously the criticism that he has been out of the country too long. It says much about the insularity of this country and the provincialism of its politics.
In a speech at the University of Ottawa last Thursday, Ignatieff went to great lengths to establish his claim to citizenship: "As a child, I played in the barns of my uncle's dairy farm in Richmond, Que.; I swam off the rocks of my aunt's place in Georgian Bay; when I was a young teacher out in British Columbia, I remember sailing up Howe Sound and watching the sun burn the mist off the ocean .... This is my Canada. These are the memories that made me who I am."
He continued by listing off jobs he's had in Canada: "the documentary series I made for the CBC, the television shows I hosted for TV Ontario, the Massey Lectures I gave ... the books and articles I've devoted to Canadian problems. I don't feel I've been away at all."
The fact is, it shouldn't matter that he has been away. It is a peculiarly Canadian trait that success abroad is viewed with suspicion if not contempt at home. Michael Ignatieff is, according to a writer in the Financial Times of London, "by any measure an extraordinary Canadian." What a shame that many of his countrymen don't see it.