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Gary Mason

Ignatieff on how the West will be won Add to ...

In examining the rocky relationship the federal Liberal Party has had with Western Canada, scholars generally point to the era of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as the one mostly responsible for the deep and enduring chasm that has developed between the West and the country's so-called natural governing party.

Mr. Trudeau, of course, almost ignited a civil war with the introduction of the National Energy Program, which robbed Alberta to help Central Canada. Beyond that, the former PM was seen as an urbane intellectual who didn't understand the country west of Ontario and didn't care to.

Which is precisely how the Conservative Party is attempting to characterize the leader of the Liberal Party today, Michael Ignatieff.

Frankly, I think it's condescending to westerners that being a so-called intellectual is some big liability. People out here are as devoted to the life of the mind, and the life of culture, as anybody else in the country. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff

Since assuming the Liberal leadership late last year, Mr. Ignatieff has spent considerable time in the West. He knows he has lots of work to do if he's ever to make the Liberals a political force in the region. The party holds only seven seats west of the Great Lakes - and four are in Greater Vancouver.

"The big issue for me is I don't want to be a party of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, which is what this party is," Mr. Ignatieff said in an interview. "Because you can't be a good prime minister unless you represent all Canadians."

Mr. Ignatieff is forthright about the roots of the party's problems in the West.

In part, he said, the Liberals have tried to win votes in Toronto by blowing off Alberta and bashing the oil sands. Mr. Ignatieff believes that strategy is insane for a number of reasons.

"I think sometimes we tried to establish our environmental bona fides by running against the oil sands," he said. "And I just think: This is a national industry. It's pumping something like $8-billion into the federal treasury. So it's slightly bad faith to beat the goose that lays the golden egg over the head with a stick. The goose is a little messy. The goose needs to be cleaned up. The goose needs to make better use of the yard, but let's make this a sustainable industry that all Canadians can be proud of."

Mr. Ignatieff believes the federal government, and Alberta, need to invest in new technologies that will help clean up the oil sands and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The capture and storage of emissions, he believes, will one day be possible after more dollars are spent on research and development.

It has also become obvious to Mr. Ignatieff that during the course of his lifetime the economic centre of gravity has shifted west. "And it's a fact that a political party that doesn't shift west where the centre of gravity is going does not have a future."

And if the Liberals are going to be a true national party again, they will need an agenda that reflects the interests of people in rural Canada and small-town Canada, as well as the country's urban centres.

"The core of my political action is the sense that political parties are absolutely crucial to the maintenance of the national unity of this country," he said. "The historical function of the Liberal Party when it's doing its damn job properly is to be the tent that pulls in people from the farms, the small towns, from remote regions to downtown.

"We governed Canada in the 20th century, in part, because we understood that better than any other party and then we began to lose our judgment, in my opinion, in the eighties and we allowed Mr. Mulroney and then Mr. Harper to claim there's a better way to do this."

Mr. Ignatieff knows that whenever the next federal election is held, there will be more Tory attack ads coming, ones questioning his loyalty to Canada because he spent much of his adult life outside the country - in England, at Harvard University and elsewhere. Some believe that message may resonate loudest in Western Canada, along with the comparisons to Mr. Trudeau and claims the new Liberal Leader is an aloof intellectual who is only comfortable in one half of the country.

"Frankly," he said, "I think it's condescending to westerners that being a so-called intellectual is some big liability. People out here are as devoted to the life of the mind, and the life of culture, as anybody else in the country. So I don't think that's going to fly. It's just stupid."

He said his life has exposed him to different cultures and different experiences. He is the only current federal leader in Canada who has been to Iran. Besides, he said, there were other prime ministers, Lester Pearson among them, who spent a great deal of their lives outside Canada before they assumed power.

"The alternative [Mr. Harper]is a politician formed and shaped in the radical conservative ideological world of Calgary and Calgary think tanks," Mr. Ignatieff said.

"To the degree this is about my patriotism and devotion to Canada, frankly, get lost."

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