Friday, 15 April 2011

Ignatieff's Absences: Why the Iggy Enigma Is My Personal Issue

Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has received a fair bit of stick from Conservatives for his 30-year absence from Canada. Long before the 2011 federal election campaign, the Tories were running attack ads against Iggy: "He didn't come back for you."

Every time I hear that, I want to respond: "That's okay. I didn't come back for him either."

I'm a dual British-Canadian citizen. I was born in BC, moved to England at the age of five, returned to Canada for a couple of years in my twenties, and moved back to the UK from 2003 to 2009 before returning to Canada. So it stings a bit when I hear criticisms that suggest absence from Canadian soil is a reason for questioning a citizen's loyalty, commitment or patriotism. Dual nationality is a blessing and a curse, and I've lived 33 years with the joys and the hurts that come from being tied equally to two nations. But I'm no less Canadian because I'm British and no less British because I'm Canadian. I love both my nations.

It's far from certain, however, that all the criticism of Ignatieff's Canadian credentials stem from the mere fact he was away for three decades. It's an undercurrent I've detected in some attacks; but there are legitimate questions, too. It's an unavoidable fact that Ignatieff ran for a seat in the House of Commons almost immediately on returning to Canada. Once an MP, and following Paul Martin's 2006 election defeat, he unsuccessfully ran for leadership of the Liberal Party. He succeeded in his leadership bid in 2008, and now he has a good chance of becoming Canada's Prime Minister. He spent those 30 years outside Canada as a historian, scholar, commentator and writer. Politics, in one form or another, is what he's always done. Maybe that makes him a careerist, an opportunist. Maybe that just means he knows his stuff and that's what he's good at.

Ignatieff's detractors have exploited his statements to the hilt. The most common soundbites don't hold up. He referred to the Canadian flag as "an imitation of a beer label," but read in context, it was clearly ironic, self-deprecating, affectionate, patriotic humour. He told Maclean's the only thing he missed about Canada was Algonquin Park, but I haven't been able to find the original article anywhere. (It definitely exists; I just can't check the context.) Given that, I doubt more than a handful of Ignatieff's critics have seen it either. These are cheap shots.

Then there's the question of whether Ignatieff voted in other countries. He and his office have gone back and forth on this, although it appears now the fact is he voted in the UK as a member of the Commonwealth. He claims not to remember how many or which Canadian elections he voted in while abroad. As for voting in other countries, his prevarication only fuels the erroneous and offensive (to me) assumption that voting in another country puts a person's loyalty to Canada into question. As well as being enshrined in law, it's perfectly possible to be a loyal Canadian and vote in or be a citizen of another country.

His opponents have confronted Iggy with more than just his absence from Canada. In Tuesday's Leader's Debate, NDP leader Jack Layton charged Ignatieff with a dismal 30% attendance record for parliamentary votes. It turned out the actual figure was 41% -- an improvement, but hardly impressive. Ignatieff dodged Layton's question and visibly lost his temper, snapping: "At least we get into government. You'll be in opposition forever." He later appeared to dodge a French reporter asking the same question in the post-debate scrum. Bad move, Iggy. You owe it to voters to explain a 59% absence.

Iggy is an enigma. There are some questions, but those questions are clouded by popular suspicions about Ignatieff's Canadian credentials based purely on his absence from residency in Canada. That merits asking whether he knows enough to govern Canada. It doesn't merit questioning his loyalty or patriotism. That is offensive.

It may be that questions of loyalty and patriotism are a Tory problem, however. I haven't noticed anyone but the Conservatives making a big issue of Ignatieff's Canadianness. As a dual citizen, this concerned me, and I looked into the issue a bit. I learned that in 2006, the Conservative government challenged Canada's laws on dual citizenship in the midst of an influx of Canadian citizens from Lebanon, due to the Israel-Hezbollah War.

Should I be worried that the Conservative Party doesn't like the laws on dual citizenship? Should I fear for my own status as a dual citizen? I have a history and a heritage in this country, and the mere thought of losing that is enough to bring tears to my eyes. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees my right to come and go from my country.

(Would it be far-fetched to suggest I probably don't need to worry because, unlike my fellow Lebanese-Canadians, I'm white, Western and not "ethnic"?)

I don't know what I think of Iggy. I have an idea what I think about his policies, but for me the jury's still out on whether the man himself is more opportunist than anything else. One thing I'm not prepared to do is to question his identity and loyalty as a Canadian purely because he lived outside the country for 30 years. That kind of unpatriotic thinking is just too close to home.


Canadian and British and Very, Very Proud


  1. I too am proud to have dual citizenship and I am privileged to have that right. I reckon you have presented a very good argument for retention of dual citizenship and also the right for Iggy to run for public office. I do not know enough about his background to ascertain his ability to function as the next elected prime minister. That will be up to the voters of Canada. A balanced article, Dave.

  2. I have a problem with the concept of dual citizenship. Doubtless in most cases it's neither here nor there, but I think a country's leader should not have dual allegiances nor obligations to two countries. Many of my European friends have dual citizenship as a matter of convenience for them, and for them it probably will never make much difference. But what if Canada's leader was dual US-Canadian during the insanity of the Bush regime? It could have been a tricky can of worms. Best to have a leader raised in the culture of the country he or she leads, and with allegiance to only that country.

  3. I'm not sure I follow your example. Why would being a US citizen have compromised a Canadian PM during Iraq? Americans had no obligation to support Bush or the military action in Iraq.

  4. There would undoubtedly have been pressure from the American right wing on the PM to help the US, beyond what was already there. The right wing would have gone nuts and created a circus around the issue, just as they do around Obama's birthplace. Give me some time and I could write up a zillion other reasons why it's a bad idea.