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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff waits behind the podium following a speech in Toronto on Thursday night. (Darren Calabrese)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff waits behind the podium following a speech in Toronto on Thursday night. (Darren Calabrese)

View 'from afar' makes me no less Canadian, Ignatieff retorts Add to ...

Michael Ignatieff launched a counteroffensive yesterday on Conservative attack ads against him, saying the central criticism - that he spent 34 years outside the country - insults millions of citizens by suggesting that living or being born abroad makes them "less of a Canadian."

The Conservative ads, aimed at portraying the Liberal Leader as an elitist with only an opportunistic attachment to Canada, sparked a round of partisan drum-beating.

Mr. Ignatieff, who knows Conservative ads succeeded in painting his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, as hapless and weak, used a Toronto speech last night to shoot back at the Tories for what he called an "offensive" shift to personal attacks when they should be fighting the economic crisis.

Mr. Ignatieff told reporters the Liberals will reply with ads aimed at the government's record, rather than personal attacks, but he would not say when. The Liberals are gauging the best use of their funds.

In his speech, the Liberal Leader hit directly at criticisms of the years he spent in Great Britain and the United States as a writer and academic, and elsewhere as a war reporter, saying that sometimes a person only sees how Canada is an inspiration to the world "from afar."

"Stephen Harper doesn't understand that. Stephen Harper thinks if you've lived and worked outside the country you're somehow less of a Canadian," he said to the Laborers International Union of North America.

"Is that the type of Canada you want? To have a government decide who is a good Canadian and a bad Canadian? Who is a true Canadian and who is a false Canadian?

"You know and we know that no matter where we come from, where we live or have lived, we are all of us proud Canadians."

Mr. Ignatieff told his audience that the onslaught was a predictable effort to make an opponent the issue from a government down in the polls, and one "presiding over the worst collapse in employment in recent memory."

"Now, when we're in the middle of the worst economic crisis this country has faced in a generation, all the Conservatives can think about is getting together in some basement room and working on some attack ads. Is that serious government?"

The six TV ads the Conservatives are running across Canada paint Mr. Ignatieff as a pretentious political carpetbagger who returned home to satisfy political ambitions. One, called "Just Visiting" includes a clip of Mr. Ignatieff on U.S. TV referring to himself as an American.

Mr. Harper's press secretary, Dimitri Soudas, said last night the issue is not the years Mr. Ignatieff spent abroad, but that he came back only to try to become prime minister.

"Canadians who chose to work outside the country don't pretend that Canada is not their country," he said.

The ads have revived sabre-rattling in Ottawa.

Earlier this week, Mr. Harper said he was willing to fight an election against the expansion of employment insurance that all three opposition parties are demanding.

The Liberals, anxious not to be forced to look like they're dodging a fight, have double-timed the selection of candidates and advanced the deadline for their election platform to have it ready in weeks.

But senior strategists on both sides said they don't believe there will be an election this spring.

Mr. Ignatieff told reporters last night that the Liberals will respond with their own advertising at some point, focusing on the Tories' economic stimulus program.

"We will have vigorous ads attacking their record, you bet. The public deserves to know they haven't got the money out the door, they've got this skyrocketing deficit, that the stimulus measures we've voted aren't actually in the economy. These are serious failings the country needs to know about."

The Liberals must decide whether to spend their relatively scant cash to run the ads immediately, mindful of the fact that many felt Mr. Dion waited too long, until the Tories' portrayal had already branded him.

"There is no question that last year, the Conservatives significantly outfundraised us, and so are sitting on a war chest, and would like nothing better than to goad us into some sort of a schoolyard fight," said the Liberal Party's national director, Rocco Rossi.

Other Liberal strategists said they are gauging whether a response is really needed. "I would say it's likely yes," said one.

In the meantime, they have armed MPs with talking points to respond. And Mr. Ignatieff's spokeswoman said an Internet campaign will tell Liberals "we won't allow the Conservatives to define Michael Ignatieff."

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