Book Review: True Patriot Love. Michael Ignatieff

July 13, 2009

This week I ran into an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail by Tom Flanagan, expatriate American, University of Calgary professor and former Conservative campaign manager.  Flanagan’s thesis in the article is that “Liberals are whining like sissy girls” over CPC attack ads when the ads in question are no worse than some of their own.  This is what passes in Canada today for political discourse:  our campaign is no more disgusting than yours, and the only reason you whine is because Obama got away with it when he conned the media and muzzled McCain.

What I find distressing about Flanagan’s argument is the way he assumes that this is the only way that politics and government can operate.  He likens an election to a game of football, all tactics and force.

Whatever happened to ideas?  To pride in one’s country?  Is there no place for optimism in politics today?

In desperation I turned to True Patriot Love:  Four Generations in Search of Canada.  Michael Ignatieff builds his narrative of the Grant family around a few vivid mental pictures.  The first is of his great-grandfather George Monro Grant galloping across the prairie with Sanford Fleming to chart a route for the new railroad.  The account pieced together from Grant’s own journals is an entertaining read and an interesting look at a Victorian adventure.

The next most vivid picture is one of thousands of Canadian high school students, their teachers and veterans swarming over Vimy Ridge at the 90th anniversary of the Battle in April of 2007. William Grant’s myth of Canada as a community of sacrifice came to fruition with the hordes of young Canadians who came to the shrine to learn about and celebrate the heroic young men and women who with their lives enabled Canada to emerge as a nation.

A sadder image is that of the bombed-out shelter in London where a young Rhodes scholar, George Grant, lost his optimism and turned forever against the war machine which could view the bombing of Hiroshima as a reasonable tactic.

A final, poignant image shows Ignatieff and his wife retracing his great-grandfather’s path and finding the railway spike George and Sanford Fleming drove into a giant pine along a river bank just outside Jasper, 128 years before.

The Grant dynasty wrote the myths which have made Canada.

George Monro Grant set out with Sanford Fleming to map the new railway line across the continent, but his real impact was through his lectures and publications in which he sold Canadians on how the railroad would extend the British Empire to the Pacific and elevate Canada far above lowly colonial status before King and Empire.

For King and country, William Lawson Grant led a generation of young men to war in 1914 with his pamphlets, his recruiting efforts, and his personal leadership in training camps and at the Somme.  Later in his career he shaped the study of Canadian history with his textbooks, his educational leadership, and his unending devotion to the memory of those who gave their lives that Canada might emerge as a nation.

Seared by his experiences as an air raid warden during the Battle of Britain in London, George Grant revolted against the prospect of American nuclear weapons on Canadian soil with the pamphlet Lament for a Nation.  Grant created the myth of the inevitable colonization of Canada by American economic and cultural interests. Inflamed by his defeatism, my generation mobilized against it, and over the ensuing fifty years we have proven the prophet wrong.

And now it is up to Michael Ignatieff, the fourth in the Grant line, to forge a new myth of Canada, a myth which gives purpose and connection to the many diverse points of view of Canadians.  For the need is immediate.  As Ignatieff says in the first chapter, “The lives we live alone do not make sense to us unless we share some public dimension with others.  We need a public life in common, some set of reference points and allegiances to give us a way to relate to the strangers among whom we live.  Without this feeling of belonging, if only imagined, we would live in fear and dread of each other.”

What we need to take Canada into the future is a new and better myth to give us hope and meaning, and to galvanize Canadians into patriotic action on behalf of our country.  If Stephen Harper wants to compete with Michael Ignatieff in the next election, let him find his own myth to inspire Canadians, not look to the divisive and mechanical tactics of the Republican Party to the south.

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