Michael Ignatieff,
True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada.
Toronto: Viking Canada, 2009.

Shortly after he fell into the leadership of the Liberal Party – by a curious acclamation in the midst of what was supposed to be a leadership contest – Michael Ignatieff disappeared for a time from public view. He was, his spokespersons indicated, completing a book, about himself and his Canadian family roots.

This news was greeted with snorts of derision from the boys and girls of the Ottawa press corps and the party hacks and flacks. “Iggy,” it seemed, was another inept intellectual like his predecessor, Stéphane Dion. Real politicians don’t write books; they should be out slapping backs, kissing babies and rousing the rank and file. The Conservatives swung into action with their negative ads: Ignatieff, the effete, elitist, espresso-drinking snob adored by the international jet set and the New York media, was “just in it for himself.” He was “just visiting” – an alien in Tim Horton’s Canada.

The picture of Ignatieff that emerges in True Patriot Love is far from the Tory caricature, but it is a bit fuzzy and unfocused in its presentation of self. While Ignatieff is not what his partisan enemies paint him as, we remain uncertain about what he is. Coming from a newly crowned leader of the opposition and potential prime minister, the book is an unusual production. Other political leaders have attracted campaign biographies written by journalists of varying degrees of sympathy and servitude toward their subject. But this is Ignatieff’s book, Ignatieff’s words, unfiltered except by whatever inner censor may now reside in the mind of the intellectual-turned-politician. The last PM with serious writing on his CV was Pierre Trudeau, but his independent writing was already behind him by the time he won the Liberal leadership. In becoming a practising politician, Ignatieff does not want to give up his academic credentials and his intellectual aura, even if it scores few points at the local Tim’s. The Toronto Liberals who engineered his rise to the top of the party must believe that the spirit of Trudeau can still move Canadians.

But True Patriot Love is also a hybrid product, falling short of the intellectual substance of earlier books like Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (1994); The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in the Age of Terror (2004); The Rights Revolution (2000); or – going way back to the 1970s – the scholarly A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750–1850. It is also an attempt to project himself to wider audiences than those that have attended to his earlier books and articles, to humanize (and politicize?) his image. In this he is at least partially successful.

It is not his first foray into first-person-plural autobiography. His earlier book of family recollections, The Russian Album (1987), looked at his paternal ancestors through his father George Ignatieff, a distinguished Canadian diplomat. The Ignatieffs were Czarist Russian émigrés, and The Russian Album examined Michael’s non-WASP roots in that other vast, snowy – but much more tortured and psychologically murky – northern country. The Russian Album won the Governor General’s Award. True Patriot Love will not win any literary awards, although it is not altogether lacking in literary merit. Ignatieff wrote about his Russian roots as an independent writer with literary licence. When he turns to his Canadian roots, it is as leader of the Liberal Party and contender for the prime ministerial throne. His “Canadian Album” is not just a family scrapbook; it is also a campaign kickoff. Hence the pointedly political, if not self-promoting, title.

Many will see this as a campaign pamphlet for the next election, and depending on the reader’s political perspective, quite different views have already appeared. Michael Valpy in the Globe and Mail has offered a panegyric, but Valpy is an embedded journalist in the Ignatieff inner circle. On the other hand, a brutally hostile review by Ron Graham, wittily entitled “Intellectual Sleight of Hand,” has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada.

I admit that I approached this book with scepticism. I have had my doubts about Ignatieff”s views on a range of issues. He was not my personal choice for Liberal leader. True Patriot Love has its faults, to be sure, but I was surprised to find it a worthwhile, even enjoyable, read.

As a public-intellectual-turned-politician, Ignatieff is poised somewhat awkwardly between conveying a serious message and conveying the kind of partisan platitudes and woolly conventional wisdom characteristic of campaign-speak. There is some of the wool here, but in quantities that are modest enough that only the most dedicated Ignatieff-haters are likely to be put off by it. And even where the wool is present, the links between it and the intellectual base are quite interesting. Ignatieff is now a full-blown pol, on the verge perhaps of attaining the highest political office in the country, but like Trudeau he brings with him a great deal of intellectual baggage which may help to illuminate the political postures that he has and will take. So what can we learn from this admittedly quickie book?1

One objection, egotism, can be set aside as irrelevant. To be sure, Ignatieff always starts with an “I.” This is very much a narcissistic, egotistical exercise, in which our man of the hour looks back to his bloodlines and extols his Family. The Family extends its Canadian roots back into the 19th century and has performed great public and intellectual service to the country. Now Michael Ignatieff, the fourth generation, is stepping forward to take his rightful place at the top. If that seems a bit grating, so what? All political leaders are, in only moderately varying degrees, egotists. If they were not, they would never make it to the upper ranks. The Tory attack ad that ends with “Ignatieff: just in it for himself has to be one of the most nakedly hypocritical political slogans ever offered the public. Something about pots and kettles?

Is the use of family lineage as support for ambition any more objectionable than, say, the smarmy invocation of the “People” as justification for posturing populists grabbing the prize? Is it undemocratic? The great democratic republic to the south has been through dynasties of Roosevelts, Kennedys, Clintons and Bushes, so I am prepared to examine the Ignatieff family credentials with an open mind.

Another objection is to Ignatieff the “elitist.” Ignatieff has a rejoinder to this, and to the charge of egotism, which is rather disarming:

What sustained illusion of self-importance propelled us to believe, generation after generation, that Canadians would care what we thought, would listen to what we had to say? Our Canada, after all, was not the Canada of the French, the Aboriginals or the new immigrants. It was white Anglo-Saxon Canada, and we made a myth of it and passed it off as if we had the right to speak for the whole country. I can see how vain and distorted our family myth-making could be, but for all that, I cannot disavow it. It is part of me.

So Ignatieff is very much the modern, contemporary New Age sensitive liberal aware of racism, sexism and the other sins of the patriarchal fathers. But – and this is what I find interesting, and even admirable – he does not duck familial or national history, even those aspects of it that might seem embarrassing to contemporary fashion, but instead admits that history is a part of him.

The lineage is indeed impressive: great-grandfather George Monro Grant, exponent of Imperial Federation and author of a first-hand account of crossing British North America coast to coast when it took canoes and horses, not airplanes or automobiles, to do it; followed by grandfather W.L. Grant, Principal of Upper Canada College and exponent of Canadian autonomy within the British Empire and Commonwealth. Ignatieff’s accounts of his 19th- and early-20th-century ancestors are affectionate and engaging, and informative for a present generation of Canadians with little sense or knowledge of our past. Ignatieff, among his other talents, is also a novelist, and his depiction of the romance between W.L. Grant and Ignatieff’s grandmother Maude comes with a novelist’s intuitive touch.

Given this heritage, and given the ease with which Ignatieff drops famous names (future Governor General Vincent Massey and future Prime Minister Mike Pearson pop up from time to time as family friends), Ignatieff has a powerful answer to the cheap Harperite ads about “Just Visiting.” Ignatieff as potential PM has a more impressive pure laine Canadian elite lineage than any previous PM. This in no way constitutes an argument for voting for him, of course, but it puts paid to this particular canard.

I have left for last the strangest and most puzzling of Ignatieff’s family legacies. After his great-grandparents and grandparents pass by the reader, “Uncle George,” the conservative Christian philosopher George Parkin Grant, of Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism, Technology and Empire, Philosophy in a Mass Age, etc. fame, suddenly pops out of Ignatieff’s Liberal closet like some weird Tory drag queen.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, I used to teach a university course on “Canadian political thought.” The Grants, all three of them, but most especially the Lament for a Nation Grant, featured prominently in the course. All were, if anything, cast on the conservative side of the spectrum, nostalgic imperialists who understood Canada in the frame of empire, first British, then American. George Grant’s deeply pessimistic conservative nationalism (“the impossibility of conservatism in our era is the impossibility of Canada”) made the greatest impression on the students, and indeed on contemporary Canadian thought. Ironically, Grant helped inspire the left nationalism that flared in the Canada of the 1960s and 1970s, even though the new left radicals of that era were far removed from his Neoplatonic and Christian views, as they were from his defence of the John Diefenbaker Conservatives as the last hope, such as it was, of Canadian nationhood.

A yet greater irony was that the Liberals, whom George Grant cast as the arch-villains of continentalism, would emerge in 1988 as the political opponents of continental free trade, now championed by a Conservative Party that had become fully committed to a free-market liberalism antithetical to Grant’s worldview. Perhaps it had always been foolish of Grant to invest political parties – mere vote-hunting chameleons – with enduring philosophical identities. Grant’s intellectual legacy to Canadian politics was thus one of paradox and confusion.

Into which steps Nephew Michael, now transformed from an Uncle George–like stance as public intellectual to the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. What are we to make of the Liberal Ignatieff’s family and intellectual relationship with the archconservative Canadian philosopher? To answer that, we must first see what Michael himself makes of George.

A key event in the emergence of the new left nationalist movement was an anti–Vietnam War teach-in at the University of Toronto in 1965, where Grant, who had published Lament for a Nation the same year, addressed the large student audience and urged them to rage against the dying of the Canadian light in the gathering gloom of American imperial hegemony. His deep pessimism had led him to despair: “Hope in the future has been and is the chief opiate of modern life.” But this was lost on his audience, who rallied to what they took to be a call to renew Canadian nationhood.

Grant had been invited by a young student radical, his nephew Michael (who shared billing as U of T activist star with Bob Rae). With mingled admiration and bemusement, Ignatieff remembers “the impression made by this gigantic figure, who appeared like a bearded patriarch” – certainly an Old Testament prophet.

But Grant’s prophecies of doom brought unanticipated consequences, as Ignatieff explains. Grant was wrong to believe that what made Canada distinctive was only its fading Britishness: our myths of origin, writes the Russian Ignatieff, are “plural, not singular.” Grant “gave up on his country at exactly the moment when it roused itself to action.” Here Ignatieff refers to a litany of Liberal innovations under his old family friend, Mike Pearson, and later Pierre Trudeau: bilingualism; the flag; the modern welfare state, including universal health insurance that distinguished Canada sharply from the United States; the Charter of Rights; and an immigration policy that opened Canada to the world as never before. He also mentions the Quiet Revolution and the affirmation of a distinctive Quebec identity, and goes on to suggest that “the remarkable feature of modernity is not the erosion of local, national attachments, but, on the contrary, the reassertion of ethnicity, language and race as markers of national identity.”

So Uncle George was “wrong. Wrong. Wrong again.” The irony is that even as he was wrong, he helped inspire the changes in attitude that made his pessimism less relevant. So like the rest of us, Ignatieff can’t quite get the crazy old patriarch out of his hair. He goes back over George’s troubled youth, especially his time in England during the war when as a conscientious objector he drifted from attending small left-wing cells to a religious epiphany while walking his bicycle through a gate. Ignatieff tries to understand what was going on inside the head of this shambling, distracted figure, but can never quite manage.

There is a note here as well of a certain family disapproval, including that of his mother and sister. George’s sudden public religiosity seems to have been perceived as a bit vulgar, out of line with the reserved, self-contained Grant family tradition. His disdain for the obligations of public service that the rest of the family respected also created a distance. Ironically, although Michael’s father came from a very different, Russian, background, with his spirit of public service and dedication to the service of Canadian diplomacy he may have exemplified the Grant ethos better than Uncle George.

However critical Michael might be of his uncle’s ideas, there is a curious parallel in his own career. After completing his postgraduate education, young Michael made a daring decision not to seek a tenured academic position, but instead moved to the U.K. to pursue a risky career as a freelance public intellectual – in other words to eschew security to work with ideas. Uncle George would have approved, even if he did not approve of the ideas. But then, after many years, Michael moved into the university, and then into public service in Canadian politics: full circle back into the traditions of the Grant and Ignatieff families.

There is a touching account of a last meeting between nephew and uncle in 1983. By now George and his wife Sheila had become vociferous opponents of abortion, a source of some embarrassment for the liberal Michael: “So as we had done all our lives, the conservative uncle and his liberal nephew skated around the chasm that had opened up between our sides of the family.” Then Michael recalled a memory of childhood intimacy with his grandmother, George’s mother, “the last in which I had a direct connection with the traditions described in this book.” The old man suddenly “crumpled” at this memory of his mother, exclaiming “in a voice of pain and pure longing, ‘Oh, God, I wish that had happened to me!’” Taken aback, Michael learned something he says he needed to know, that “family traditions are more than arguments with the dead … A tradition is also a channel of memory through which fierce and unrequited longings surge, longings that define and shape a whole life.”

We can leave it there, in all its irresolution. To his credit, Ignatieff does not reach for the simplistic, sentimental moral lesson that might have been drawn by a less reflective politician with an eye for the voter. Appropriately for a philosophical liberal, a certain ambiguity remains, and a choice of futures.

Each of Ignatieff’s forebears shares one salient feature with Michael: they all spent time in the U.K. but came back to Canada with a renewed commitment to this country that was deepened by having lived abroad. Ignatieff points to the evolution over time of successive generations conceiving Canada in ever broader terms, from Imperial Federation to Commonwealth autonomy to autonomy from the American empire to – well, whatever Ignatieff makes of his opportunities if he gets them.

Here he throws out some campaign planks, like an east-west energy grid. He also champions a new activist Canadian-driven international role that would come out from under the American shadow. George Grant was wrong about the inevitable hegemony of America, Ignatieff states; instead we are at the end of the American empire, and we Canadians “owe it to ourselves to find other partners to build the kind of international order we need.” Somewhat alarmingly, he even suggests that we should form our own “coalitions of the willing.” This reference comes from the former Harvard professor who notoriously, in the New York Times, offered an intellectual rationale for Bush’s catastrophically foolish Iraq invasion, and then apologized for his error in the same paper after going into Canadian politics.

Uncle George may have been wrong about the inevitable absorption of Canada, his little clump of outdated Tory tradition, by the irresistible rise of the universal homogenous state to the south. But Nephew Michael may be just as mistaken in propounding a muscular liberalism with a “Responsibility to Protect” that justifies “Empire Lite,” in which the West intervenes around the world with only the purest of humane liberal intentions to stop bad guys and replace tyrannical, genocidal regimes with “democracy.” We have seen some of the early returns from this campaign, and they are less than encouraging. Canadians need to know just what Ignatieff plans for a Canada forming coalitions of the willing. The international order we need, he writes, would have “effective international law, responsible international development assistance and a fair world trading system.” Of course, no one would call for ineffective law, irresponsible development and unfair trade. But how do we get from here to there? Will the face of Ignatieff’s Canada abroad be Dr. Norman Bethune or Gen. Rick Hillier?

It is difficult to make up one’s mind finally about True Patriot Love. There is a bit too much platitudinous padding and self-advertisement, which I have tended to skate by in this review. After nearly 200 pages, I am still not sure what kind of PM this guy will really make. Even as a campaign pamphlet, though, this is reasonably likeable. I like it much better than his book on political ethics in the age of terror, where I find a great deal to disagree with, sometimes strongly. Still, his arguments in that book are worthy of serious contestation, which is more than I could say about the smug homilies of Bush and Harper on the same subject. And the book’s title does offer a cute slogan for the next campaign: “Vote Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil.”


1    Ignatieff could have done with a more attentive editor, as there are some mistakes that should have been caught. For instance, he has his great-grandfather giving an interview to the Victoria “Times Colonist” in 1872 (p. 55). Victorians know that while there was a Daily Colonist in those days, and a little later a Victoria Times, there was no Times Colonist for another century: the two papers were merged in 1980 as part of the now faltering CanWest empire. There is another odd slip-up on p.120 when he writes that W.L. Grant “sometimes voted for the socialist CCF from sheer exasperation” with Mackenzie King. Yet just a few pages earlier, Ignatieff notes Grant’s death in 1935 – the year of the first national election contested by the CCF, which had been founded just two years previously.