How Michael Ignatieff Understands Canada

The National Post is running excerpts from Ignatieff’s True Patriot Love. On April 23, the subject was “Canadian identity.”

The thesis: Canadians are not like Americans. Uh huh. So far, so familiar. Canadian “freedom is different, both in general and in detail: no right to bear arms north of the 49th; and no capital punishment either … Rights that are still being fought for south of the border – public health care, for example, have been ours for a generation. A woman’s right to choose is secure here; there it remains contested ground. These differences are major, and the struggle to maintain them, while pursuing ever deeper integration with [the American] economy is the enduring challenge … of our identity.”

What if you’re a Canadian who’s not ready to step up to the challenge of maintaining the long gun registry? What if you have doubts about its effectiveness? What if you think it encroaches on Canadian freedoms? Is Ignatieff saying that you are not quite Canadian? A little less Canadian than those enthusiastic about the registry? And what if you think our health care could be improved by injecting some competition from the private sector? You’re not Canadian? Not the best type? You belong to the Canadian “B” team, perhaps.

What is Ignatieff saying about a woman’s “right to choose”? To choose what? To emasculate her boyfriend? Throw her granny down the stairs? I guess not. He’s talking about abortion without talking about abortion. But the message is clear. If you think there should be laws restricting abortion in, say, the last three months or the last six months of the pregnancy, your Canadian identity is slipping. If you think there should be a political debate on the subject you’ll be lucky to make even the “B” team.

Mr. Ignatieff: in a free country abortion laws, gun laws, and regulation of health care are matters to be determined in representative legislatures. I don’t deny that the courts have a role in policy decisions. But to assign such matters the status of “rights” goes a long way toward suggesting that they be taken out of legislative reach and put beyond political debate and deliberation. To say that Canadians as Canadians endorse this remedy or that policy as an expression of their national “identity” goes even further.

Let me say it again: this is a free country. Canadians can take a stand against current health policy, against gun regulation, and against abortion without giving up their Canadianness. They can argue for change in law and policy without ceasing to be identifiable, bone fide Canadians.

Well, that was my argument yesterday. Today (April 24) I open the paper to find that Mr. Ignatieff is supporting diversity of opinion. Good for him. “Citizens disagree with each other.” Ain’t it the truth! “Politics is how we manage public disagreement.” Yes!

I still have a problem. How am I to put together yesterday’s contention that Canadians qua Canadians think alike on vital policy issues with today’s acknowledgement that we don’t think alike? Someone is confused.

And what’s happened to the idea that the Canadian “identity” is expressed by a preference for unregulated abortion, regulated gun ownership, and Medicare? Blowing in the wind.

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7 Responses to “How Michael Ignatieff Understands Canada”


  1. 1 David T. Koyzis April 27, 2009 at 8:49 am

    Would the word audacity be sufficient to describe a man who has spent all but a few years of his adult life outside Canada returning to tell us what our identity is? In his Massey Lectures he likened his writing about Canada to a Martian visiting earth, thereby confirming his outsider status. These words will likely come back to haunt him during the next election campaign.

  2. 2 Chris April 27, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Bravo Janet!

    Once again you hit the nail on the head.

    We know what road “identity” takes us down. It’s a polarizing, discourse-stifling concept that “freezes” a country and/or people in one era forever. Better to think of and encourage a civic identity, as you’ve written about previously – i.e. to focus on the institutions and processes that define HOW we deliberate and decide about issues like abortion and the liike.

    Chris

  3. 3 JSM April 30, 2009 at 5:04 am

    Oh, come on now, don’t be silly.

    The fact is, those legislative accomplishments can succeed, and citizens can become very attached to them, as is the case with many of Ignatieff’s examples, particularly Medicare. Indeed, Canadians consistently (including in Quebec, though by a slim majority there while highly elsewhere) identify Canadian citizenship with the federal state, and yes (quel horror), with programs such as Medicare. This is not a court promulgating on the opinions of the land, it is the opinions of the people. All people? No, surely not. But to ignore this reality as you suggest is simply to say that we cannot speak of anything as indicative of Canadian identity. The somewhat indignant tone of this piece is a bit surprising given the mildness of Ignatieff’s case. But I suppose my thinking such statist horrors to be mild is the problem, eh?

    I must say, the idea that attachment to Medicare, national programs, et al being a mistaken blurring of the ideals of the Liberal Party and those of Candians is a myth. It does not reflect citizens’ actual expressed preferences. Yes, these will change over time, and should be allowed to. But to say that means at no point, even 40 years down the road, that we cannot stand up and say, yes, in the main Canadians seem to believe in this, is quite a stretch.

  4. 4 chris April 30, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    “The fact is, those legislative accomplishments can succeed, and citizens can become very attached to them”

    No disagreement there. But do these points translate into a Canadian identity? Or are you talking about national political culture? ideology? preferences?

    This is the problem with people who advocate the concept of “identity.” People throw the word around with no clear theoretical and empirical idea about what it means and how it works.

    To me, you can speak of medicare as being an expression of people’s preferences, maybe even political culture. But Canadian identity? No – indeed, identity seems like a tautological concept, at least in the way employed above.

  5. 5 chris April 30, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    “This is not a court promulgating on the opinions of the land, it is the opinions of the people. All people? No, surely not.”

    So what are the implications of these three sentences/phrases? Are you saying that, if 70% of Canadian citizens believe in medicare, and 30% do not, then medicare is Canadian identity? How about if the proportion is 51-49? or 30-70? How do we determine empirically exactly WHEN a “legislative victory” becomes part of the Canadian identity? When Michael Ignatieff tells us so? If we can’t pinpoint the exact circumstances and numbers needed before something becomes part of the Canadian identity, how useful is this concept?

    And what happens to the proportion of people who do not believe in medicare? They clearly do not have a “Canadian identity” so what are they?

    And what happens if a proportion of citizens believe in medicare, but not the social safety net? If we are told that a Cdn identity means believing in medicare and a social safety net, what becomes of these people?

    Again – the concept of “Canadian identity” gets way too much ink – much more than it deserves. Better to use ideology, political culture, or more accurately, preferences.

  6. 6 Rob May 10, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    I agree with Chris and Janet. Let me just say that this fight for Canadian identity is not just a Liberal one or an Ignatieff one. Certainly Harper plays the same game. If you disagree with the war, you are somehow against the troops. And if you’re against the troops, you are unpatriotic. It’s the same thing Ignatieff suggests in his book.

    How many times has a Conservative said that conservative values are Canadian values. If you can be successful with the argument, you can throw the veil of the Canadian flag in front of you and make your point unassailable. In truth, it may be true that some Canadians feel the way our political leaders say we feel, but there are a whole bunch of people who don’t feel the same and shouldn’t feel that way. Subtly, we have the recipe for our identity – the fact that we are free to have such agreements and disagreements. This is something we all have in common.

  7. 7 janetajzenstat May 11, 2009 at 10:51 am

    Good discussion. On this blog I try to write as a academic who’s above the political fray. I sometimes slip.


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