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Canada's Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff pauses while addressing supporters after being defeated, at the Canadian federal election night headquarters in Toronto, May 2, 2011. (Mike Cassese/ Reuters/Mike Cassese/ Reuters)
Canada's Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff pauses while addressing supporters after being defeated, at the Canadian federal election night headquarters in Toronto, May 2, 2011. (Mike Cassese/ Reuters/Mike Cassese/ Reuters)

Gary Mason

Ignatieff has himself to blame for loss in West Add to ...

A month after his coronation as federal Liberal Leader, everything seemed possible for Michael Ignatieff. The notion of making the Liberals a true national party again, one that represented all regions of the country, including the West, was a goal within reach.

Or so he thought.

"I don't want to be a party of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto," Mr. Ignatieff said over lunch in June 2009. "You can't be a good prime minister unless you represent all Canadians. I certainly believe we can become a force in the West."

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But the results of Monday's federal election show that in the two years since making that bold declaration, Mr. Ignatieff completely failed in his attempt to make his party relevant west of Ontario. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Like much of the rest of the country, western Canada turned its back on the Liberals. And now the utter decimation of the party means it will be years, if ever, before it can again contemplate Mr. Ignatieff's ambitious dream of being a national institution.

The Liberals went into the election holding only seven seats in the four western provinces - with five of them being in B.C. They won only four seats in the West, including only two in B.C. - both in the City of Vancouver.

In many ways Mr. Ignatieff, who lost his own seat, has only himself to blame.

B.C. is the one western province in which he was confident his party could make major gains in this election. He said he had been encouraged by his many visits here after being elected Liberal Leader.

Mr. Ignatieff unveiled a made-in-B.C. election platform, the only province the Liberals did this for, that spoke to issues of specific concern to British Columbians. But he didn't disclose it until late last week. What was he thinking? Why would he give himself so little time to campaign on a B.C.-tailored program in a province where he desperately needed votes?

The Liberals' B.C. manifesto also made no mention of the biggest hot button issue in the province: the HST. Jack Layton, meantime, completely exploited British Columbians' angst over the tax. He promised that if B.C. taxpayers voted down the HST in a July referendum, he would not force the province to pay back the $1.6-billion Ottawa gave it to introduce the tax in the first place. Brilliant.

In Alberta, the Liberal platform was always going to be a hard sell.

The party's plan to establish a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ban crude oil tankers from sailing down the West Coast and insist that the oil sands be cleaned up were non-starters with most Albertans.

The policies were panned by a plethora of in-province critics who said they would result in billions of dollars in lost revenue for Alberta.

Mr. Ignatieff failed to offer Manitobans anything specific that might have enticed people there to jump to his party. Nor did the Liberals' Red Book have much that spoke exclusively to the people of Saskatchewan.

You would have thought that the Liberals could come up with at least a few promises that would have given the people of those two provinces something to think about - something to counter the negative feelings they created in much of the West by blocking a bill to cancel the long gun registry and opposing the dismantling of the wheat board monopoly. But there was nothing.

Having said all that, Mr. Ignatieff could have promised free toasters for everyone from Winkler, Man., to Windermere, B.C., and it might not have made a difference.

For years, those in B.C. and the Prairie provinces associated the federal government with any number of policies (see national energy program) they believed favoured Central Canada at the expense of the West. For much of that time, the government was run by Liberals. To some extent, Mr. Ignatieff was fighting the ghost of Pierre Trudeau in this election.

If nothing else, Westerners know how to hold a grudge.

Maybe Mr. Ignatieff was naïve to believe he could dramatically change his party's fortunes in the West in the relatively short time he had as leader before this election was called. Maybe his party's showing is a reflection of missed opportunities or the expression of an itchy electorate that didn't see the Liberals offering the type of change for which it is thirsting.

Or maybe, just maybe, Michael Ignatieff is simply not everyone's cup of tea. Politics can be cruel that way.

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