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True Patriot Love: Four Generations in Search of Canada

by Michael Ignatieff

In the author’s note that introduces True Patriot Love, writer, public intellectual, and current Leader of the Official Opposition Michael Ignatieff claims that the man who began writing this book in 2000 is essentially the same man who signed off on the galleys nine years later.  His well-documented transition from “private citizen” to the Liberal Party’s best bet to unseat Stephen Harper in the next federal election notwithstanding, Ignatieff insists he has remained true to his original intention: to honour, in book form, his family’s matrilineal line, the Grants.

That the Grants played key roles in some of the debates that have defined Canadian nationalism is more than just a fortunate coincidence for a novice party leader whose long absence from the national scene has left him open to accusations of political opportunism. Ignatieff is too canny to deny the rather opportune timing of his family biography, but he is also signaling the reader that he won’t allow the book to degenerate into a position paper or stump speech.

As it turns out, Ignatieff the politician is very much in evidence in the book’s first chapter. Surprisingly, this is not a bad thing. Ignatieff is after something deeper than a dusting off of family albums and a public proclamation of an impressive political and intellectual lineage. He lays down the book’s philosophical thesis in the opening pages, asserting that the foundations of a fully developed private and public self are dependent upon a full commitment to and acknowledgment of one’s shared citizenship.

“We share a life in common with the strangers we call fellow citizens,” he writes, and absent that feeling of belonging “we live in fear and dread of each other.” The idea of citizenship and the love of one’s country not only ground an individual in a system of complex but ultimately nurturing personal feelings and associations, they link fellow citizens with little else in common but a shared nationality. Without those linking loyalties and aspirations, a country will either disintegrate or be held together solely by force and tyranny.

Ignatieff is aware that nationalism is not a popular sentiment in many quarters, especially among a group he terms “cosmopolitans”: those Canadians who see no reason to love their native land any more than they do Paris or New York or Cairo. Nationalism is outdated, cosmopolitans argue, a relic of the bad old days of racism, tribal allegiances, and world wars. Borders and cultures ought to be global, their argument goes.

Ignatieff acknowledges much that is good in this globalized perspective, but he bluntly states that cosmopolitanism is “the privilege of those with a passport, the luxury enjoyed by those with a country of their own. Those who don’t think they need a country … ought to visit a refugee camp.” Statelessness is a kind of hell, Ignatieff argues persuasively, aware always that his book’s target readership may be put off by the notion of nationalist sentiments, no matter how nuanced and egalitarian.

The chapter is written in a reflective but driving oratorical style that, if successfully transferred to the podium, should provide a welcome antidote to Stephen Harper’s one-note talking points in future election debates.

The next three chapters provide brisk, engaging biographies of Ignatieff’s prominent Grant forebears. George Monro Grant was born in 1835 to Scottish immigrant farmers in Nova Scotia and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1861, a position that allowed him to publicly argue that the province should confederate with the rest of Canada. His opinions attracted the admiration of an equally passionate confederate in the congregation, Sandford Fleming.

Grant accompanied Fleming on an expedition from Halifax to Victoria, the first cross-country journey of its kind in Canadian history. He remained a passionate defender of Canada’s unique role as part of a federation of nations united under the British flag. His son William Grant was injured in the First World War and returned to Canada with his faith in his father’s vision of a British federation badly shaken.

William Grant’s son, the philosopher George Parkin Grant (Ignatieff’s uncle), would go on to write Lament for a Nation, one of the defining documents of a new nationalist vision that identified American cultural imperialism and the homogenizing effects of emerging global technologies and marketplaces as the primary threats to Canadian sovereignty.

Ignatieff’s vision of a truly Canadian self is gradually defined in relation to – and occasionally in opposition to – his ancestors’ ideas and definitions. Unfortunately, perhaps for all of us, he sidesteps his uncle’s passionate objections to global consumer capitalism and American continental hegemony. In spite of Ignatieff’s protests to the contrary, three decades of free-trade agreements, deregulation, and global capital flow have left a large number of Canadians laden with debt and insecure employment arrangements. A failure to address the fundamental economic inequities that continue to undermine the average Canadian will leave us with a country hardly worth arguing over or writing about.