Return of the (philosopher) king

Return of the (philosopher) king McGill University

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McGill Reporter
October 6, 2005 - Volume 38 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 38: 2005-2006 > October 6, 2005 > Return of the (philosopher) king

Return of the (philosopher) king

Ignatieff wows at Beatty Lecture

Michael Ignatieff delivered a hit for Homecoming on October 1, rousing a packed auditorium with a bold articulation of Canada's present and future place in the world. Speaking at the annual Beatty Lecture, Ignatieff drew on history and political philosophy to offer a forceful vision of national identity and foreign policy. The speech was marked by several standing ovations for Ignatieff, who occupies a post as Director of Human Rights Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and who will be taking a visiting professorship at the University of Toronto this January.

Sporting a McGill tie, Ignatieff opened by playing to a crowd composed largely of alumni and prominent Montrealers. He noted that his grandmother was an early principal of Royal Victoria College and joked that he shared an ancestral affinity with the "cold heart of Scottish Calvinism" that drove James McGill. The speaker also cited alumnus "Le Grand Laurier" as a personal hero. Ignatieff then dove into the stern stuff, setting out his ideas for the country in a speech that often soared above the platitudes that typically mark Canadian political dialogue.

In "Canada in the World: The Challenges Ahead," Ignatieff set out the challenges that confront the country in this era when Canada's traditional touchstones of imperial identity (British and American) have been superceded by what he sees as an emerging but undefined multilateral order. He observed that Canada typically leverages greater power in bodies like the UN and NATO, but is now struggling to express its influence in the face of the widening fissures in those institutions.

The county's future, Ignatieff said, lies with a strong military and a new understanding of its relationship with the United States. He told the audience that Canadians are learning that the consequences of disagreeing with America have diminished, but that they must nonetheless resist adopting a superiority complex.

"Anti-Americanism is going to look pretty parochial in the future when new poles of influence may have shifted eastwards toward countries like India and China."

The audience began stirring as Ignatieff broached national topics that he perceived as fundamental to "building an identity beyond complexes." The three most pressing of these topics he described as multiculturalism, aboriginal issues and - of course - Quebec. Recognizing "the brilliant generation of Quebecers" who went to Ottawa and Quebec City in the 1960s, he credited the province with imparting a new sophistication to Canada's self-understanding, one that transcended its older imperial identity.

Ignatieff declared that the era of multiculturalism sounded the death knell of 'two solitudes' and has forced everyone in Canada to search for a sense of national identity rooted not in common ethnic origin, but in common citizenship. That sense of citizenship must come to the fore, he warned, lest Canada face the prospect of being attacked by its own people: "London is the nightmare that we must avoid at any price."

Faint hints of electoral politics dusted the speech, but the prospect of a Right Honourable Ignatieff became explicit during audience questioning. Responding to an audience member's inquiry that opened with "As Prime Minister," the speaker firmly dismissed questions of future office. A gaggle of Young Liberals watched closely from the third row.

On questions of federalism, Ignatieff deftly straddled the issue of provincial autonomy versus federal power. While praising the many innovations that have emerged from the provinces, he stressed the need for clearly delineated federal responsibilities. The audience rose for several ovations as Ignatieff blasted the concept of a Canada composed of "ten balkanized principalities" and decried a political stalemate that has reduced the national discourse to revenue squabbling.

"We don't agree on the political rules of the game," he observed, and noted that the individual rights set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are not sufficient political glue to hold the country together. Ignatieff was also emphatic in pronouncing that debates akin to Meech and Charlottetown were not tenable.

When later pressed by the Reporter as to how the "rules of the game" were to be clarified without a major constitutional accord, Ignatieff stated that he was averse to "grand bargains and dice-throwing," but that deals were nonetheless necessary to make the country work. He added that Ottawa has to be emphatic in retaking exclusive responsibility for those matters that are clearly federal, such as foreign affairs.

Other questions for Ignatieff touched on the role of Islam in Canada. He stated, to applause, that Canada must learn to reconcile tolerance with limits, and that when the rights of women come into conflict with sharia law, it is the former that must prevail. The country has an imperative to find a way of inclusion for Muslims, said Ignatieff, and that "if we get this right, the world is watching."

The lecture was delivered in English, with portions in imperfect but elegant French. It formed part of a busy weekend for Ignatieff, who spoke at a series of other events at McGill, including a Conference on International Humanitarian Law. Ignatieff appeared touched by the reception he received and repeatedly thanked the McGill community for the hospitality it had accorded him.

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