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Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during his speech at the Welcome ceremony at the party's biennial convention in Ottawa Friday January 13, 2012. T (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff pauses during his speech at the Welcome ceremony at the party's biennial convention in Ottawa Friday January 13, 2012. T (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ignatieff tribute adds emotional touch to Liberal convention Add to ...

A high-spirited Liberal Party gathered Friday night to pay tribute to a leader who gave it his all, to debate who might be the next party president, and to dream of glory to come.

The emotional centre of the evening was the tribute to and from Michael Ignatieff, who stepped down immediately after losing his own riding in the May 2 election, when the party was reduced to third-place status.

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Friends and supporters of Mr. Ignatieff have contributed to establishing a scholarship in his name.

“Nicest present I ever got,” Mr. Ignatieff told the delegates, before delivering a short and poignant address in which he promised: “as a teacher, as a writer, as a citizen, as a voter, I’ll be with you.”

In a bit of a jab at the internal fighting that dogged his leadership as well as his predecessors, he pledged that whoever the new leader may be, “I will stand 100 per cent behind that leader, and I’ll keep my mouth shut too.”

Mr. Ignatieff acknowledged that he did not meet the goal any party leader must set: to win government.

“I didn’t get there,” he told the convention. “God knows I tried. I didn’t leave anything on the table. I gave it everything I had. But I didn’t get there. But I’m telling you: You will get there.”

And when that future leader does get there, “everything I’ve tried to do will be worthwhile.”

Interim Leader, old friend and then political rival Bob Rae told Mr. Ignatieff: “you did get there ...you, my friend...will always be among the great winners.”

During their debate, the four candidates for party president, who will lead the executive as the Liberals struggle to rebuild, mostly kept the gloves on. Former cabinet minister Sheila Copps and former head of the Ontario wing of the party, Mike Crawley, are frontrunners, which may be why former diplomat Ron Hartling, who is not expected to win, declared: “Some of you have been urged to vote for Mike to stop Sheila or for Sheila to stop Mike.” Instead, he urged the party to rally around him.

Mr. Crawley was toughest on the fundraising failures of the party, saying the Conservatives are “building a nuclear power plant. We’re rubbing two sticks together.”

There wasn’t a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the proposal from the outgoing executive to move to a system of primary contests for choosing the next leader. Ms. Copps is essentially supportive, but was alone on the stage in supporting a proposal that seems destined to fail when the delegates consider it Saturday.

Ms. Copps displayed the most emotion of the night when she concluded the evening by recalling he words from the May 2 election night: “We cannot sit by and watch our beloved party die.”

The result of the vote for party president is revealed Sunday.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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